3 Aspects of Helping Parents Age Well

Sometimes unrelated situations come together like pieces of a puzzle: reconnecting with Sally, an old friend at a party; eavesdropping on 2 caregivers’ conversation about their elderly “patients;” two involved, energetic old women. They’ve given me additional ideas about the “hows” of helping our parents age well.

1.  Something to look forward to. My husband was already in conversation at the party with long-time friend, Sally. “Matthew died,” were the first words out of her mouth when I joined them. My mind did a quick recall. Matthew was Sally’s now twice-widowed 90-year-old mother, who had suffered and recovered pretty well from a small stroke just before Matthew’s recent, untimely death. A lot of scary, sad stuff!

Sally, a woman of enormous energy, had already taken her mother on a very short  trip last month and was about to take her on a 4-days-to-Florida trip to visit an old (age-wise and otherwise) friend. Sally realized having something to look forward to at this delicate time in her mother’s life was essential.

Her brother, on the other hand, questioned whether the trip was a good idea after the recent stroke and loss. The doctor said, if she wanted to go she should.

“And why shouldn’t she go?” became a short topic of conversation. Shouldn’t her life be as pleasurable as possible? Was taking the risk worse than limiting an old person’s life to protect it as long as possible? Whereupon Sally said “I try to give Mother something to look forward to each month. It’s something I can do that brings pleasure.”

2.  Caregivers and grown children–and grandchildren. Caregivers help in so many ways, but they don’t take the place of children, assuming the parent-child relationship is decent. Do we think parents age as happily and as well as possible when contact with their children and/or grandchildren is limited or nonexistant?

Take this conversation I overheard yesterday on a 35-minute train ride. Two caregivers were discussing their elderly clients. Subject: one elderly woman wouldn’t swallow enough water with her pills, no matter how hard the caregiver tried to encourage and explain the importance.

While her cohort offered advice, the other woman said she’d tried it all to no avail; the old woman was nice but uncooperative. When asked if she used a walker or was strong enough to stand and be helped to a chair, the response was “she could if she wanted to make the effort, but she doesn’t and just gets weaker and weaker.” Family members were never mentioned. Were they ever consulted or made aware?

This brings up the question of adult children’s influence in helping their parents age well.  Do caregivers need to be nicely monitored? Do aging parents make more of an effort for their children than for caregivers? Does having interested children make parents and caregivers want to try harder? Does a happier parent try harder to do what’s best for him/herself? And if so, can/should children and grandchildren arrange to free up more time (and schedule it ahead so it’s something to look forward to) to be with their parents?

It no doubt depends on the relationship, doesn’t it. We try when there’s something in it for us.  But if we don’t care, do we try?

3. Stimulation, feelings of self-worth and love from family and others.
 Yesterday, after taking the commuter train to the suburb we lived in, I decided to walk through the village. The stationery shop’s window caught my eye. Always well-decorated, it looked especially cheery and colorful–with many flower arrangements integrated into the display.

I poked my head in the doorway to tell Mrs. H. how pretty the window looked and immediately saw a dozen or more arrangements and plants inside. Before I could ask the question, Mrs. H. explained last Friday was her 95th birthday and she had been in her shop for 50 of those years. The Village gave her a party at 10:am on Friday and it lasted until 1 o’clock, “Can you believe that?” Mrs. H. said. “Everyone was there.” Mrs. H. was beaming–looking better than I’ve seen her look all year.

Her stationery shop kept her involved, connected–while her husband was alive and after. She opens the shop 6 days a week without fail. She drives her old car almost a mile to work to a parking space not far from her shop. In the last few years she can be seen pushing a shopping cart in front of her as she walks from the car to her shop’s door. (No visible cane for this woman.)

At times Mrs. H has one helper–sometimes a family member; at other times no one. Her children live fairly close, she has grandchildren of whom she is proud, and people come in and out of her shop all day. Most know Mrs. H. and she knows most of them and their families.

The routine, the connections, the compliments on her window displays, the  help she can give, the people who come in just to chat…isn’t that a reason to get up every morning.

Then just last night, on Frontline, I watched another dynamic at-that-time  83-year-old Bubbe, whose grandson has given her a wonderful gift–he asked her to help with  a video project for his film class.  The video, Feed Me Bubbe, became an internet hit. Watch the 3+ minute video. (The sound is low–listen carefully.)      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/relationships/identity/going-digital-at-83.html    Click Relationships. Need we say more?

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