Aging Parents: Feeling Alone in a Crowded Room–plus 2 Additional Reasons They May Not Want to Go Out Any More

It may all boil down to pride; staying home is safe.

No one likes to feel diminished, whether it’s unintentional or not. Yet going someplace where interaction with others is the norm can pose a threat to older people’s pride and self-esteem when they have certain aging issues. I think it’s safe to say many–if not all– older people begin to recognize what octogenarian Julia calls “a lessening of oneself,” adding “it’s not pleasant.”

When others no longer pay attention to them and/or or older people don’t want others to discover their “lessening,” thoughts of being with others away from home can be emotionally troubling. Three issues (you may think of more) that can cause this.

1. Mobility
2. Vision
3. Memory

Mobility: We Can Change This Scene

I’m was at a family gathering that included my oldest cousin (age 88) a widow, now living in Assisted Living due to heart and mobility problems. My cousins’ ages have a big spread. Many cousins (plus some of their children, grandchildren and a great- grandchild) were at the gathering. Age range was 2-90 (a cousin’s husband).

Since I live across the country I don’t see family members often. Things change in a year as we know. I try to remember Sr. Advisor’s wise words: Don’t assume. Nevertheless, I keep being surprised.

I was surprised, upon arriving at the gathering, to find my oldest cousin (a once capable working mother and volunteer) sitting basically alone in the living room, in a very hard-to get-out-of chair, while the rest of the family was socializing outside on the patio or busying themselves placing food on the nearby table for a buffet-style meal.

From time to time the youngest would run through the living room, with his aunt in hot pursuit.  My oldest cousin was in the scene but out of the action….ignored.  She could not move from the current chair without help. Evidently no one thought about that.

As she and I talked, I asked if she was comfortable or would prefer sitting on the patio. She wasn’t comfortable, she said, and two of us helped her out of the deep-cushioned chair and walked onto the patio with her. We found a suitable chair with a firm seat and arms from which she could stand up and walk (if someone put her walker into position for her). She was back in the action.

In hindsight we can change the scene by:

  • initially providing a sturdy armchair (with a firm seat) which is easy to get up from. A wheel chair would work even better for those who use a wheel chair.
  • watching that no one is ignored
  • having a sit-down meal, using informal place cards, for compatible seating

Seder: The O’Learys, the Steins, 99 1/2-year-old R, Us + 47 others, a previous post this year, is a model of sensitive people hosting a large event that includes an old person who hasn’t the energy to move around a lot.

Vision: We can be the eyes in an unobtrusive way

I think about a good friend whose mother was declared legally blind in her 90’s. My friend had an innate understanding of how to help parents age well–respecting and empowering. She related how her mother no longer wanted to go out if there would be too many people she knew. Her vision was so poor that she feared she wouldn’t recognize someone she knew well and that would be embarrassing.

We can’t change the scene, but we can safeguard elders’ pride and self-esteem.

  • When in a smallish group it was easy for my friend to remain by her mother’s side and whisper the names of people who were heading towards them. (Her mother didn’t want to be embarrassed by having her daughter say “You remember so-and-so.”)
  • Or she would take the initiative and say, for example, “Hello, Kristi” so her mother had the name before needing to use it.
  • When parents no longer drive but otherwise seem unchanged, let the person driving your parent know about the vision loss so when people can come over they can initiate “Hello Mary, it’s so-and-so.” or I’m so-and-so.

Memory

Memory issues seem more tricky. I am told a very successful man–once a leader in his community–was invited to a party all his friend would be attending. He had memory loss that was worsening. His wife, assuming it would be good for him to be with his old friends and attend a happy event, was insisting he go. He didn’t want to go, but gave up arguing. Instead he decided not to get dressed for the party.  His pride wouldn’t allow him to be any less of a person than his old friends knew and remembered. His wife didn’t get it….until he finally “put his foot down” in a way she couldn’t ignore.

As we try to help parents age well, we realize that older people can be easily marginalized by unthinking people–even caring people who would be appalled if they realized what they were(n’t) doing. Why does it seem easy to forget our elders have pride?
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Note-New: Check out “Of Current Interest” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities about cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s, plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.    

 

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