Aging Parents: Do We Help or (Inadvertently) Diminish Them–3 Self-esteem

Good job!” How often parents say this simple phrase to their children. Good parents praise and reinforce self-worth. No elaboration needed. What is needed is the reminder of how easily self-esteem can be unwittingly undermined in the elderly–be it by strangers, acquaintances, or family members.

Is it due to assumptions people make about older people?
Is it that a well-meaning phrase, used to show affection, is actually belittling to a proud elder?
Is it that an unthinking remark, in response to an elder’s age-related issue, hurts?

Assumptions

While Katie’s mother, at 85, had mobility problems, her mind was excellent. When she went places where much walking was involved, she preferred a wheel chair. Katie–a perceptive daughter–realized the wheel chair caused receptionists, sales people, and other strangers to aim conversations at her, not her mother. Katie quickly and nicely told them they needed to speak to her mother, not to her.

That said, we don’t always catch the disrespect in time. I took my m-i-l, then 99, to a specialist when she visited NYC two years ago. We sat in his office on one side of the desk, he on the other with her X’ray images on his computer. My m-i-l sat across from him. I was farthest away on her right. He could look straight across at my m-i-l, but turned to me when he spoke. The words to nicely make him aware, didn’t come to me fast enough. I heard my m-i-l’s voice–strong and clear–saying something like: “Dr., I pay the bills for my care, please direct your remarks to me.”

Older people who have learned to stand up for themselves, speak up. But whether they’re take-charge elders or “shrinking violets,” the result is the same: they feel belittled, disrespected. My m-i-l would not go back to him regardless of how skilled he was. She still brings up the experience and it was over two years ago.

Affectionate Expressions and Informality Can Convey Disrespect 

While Katie was a pro at deflecting disrespect, she too had a surprise. She took her mother to a bridal shower. While they were not seated at the same table, Katie could see her mother was animated and engaged in conversation throughout the afternoon. On the way home Katie asked about the girl her mother was talking with. “She was insulting,” was the response. Katie was taken aback. It seems they had a “very nice conversation,” but when it was time to leave the girl said “It was so nice talking with you, Grams.” “Grams?!” Katie’s mother had felt equal, not old; and no amount of explaining that this was undoubtedly a friendly expression, could placate Katie’s insulted, aging mother.

Unwanted informality can also cause problems. I remember a representative from a California college who came to speak with our 12th graders. Looking at her watch, she mentioned to me the 3-hour time difference and her worry about her elderly mother who had undergone difficult surgery the day before.

She explained that her mother was a strong woman, accustomed to being treated with great respect. If the hospital staff used the “honey-sweety” language, she feared her rather helpless-after-surgery mother would feel lessened, and her will to embark on the difficult recovery process ahead could be affected. “She needs to be called Mrs–not even by her first name…that’s too familiar,” said this college rep.” She planned to phone the hospital as soon as the morning shift was on duty to alert them.

Mrs. M (who died at 104) had one child–a dutiful son. While not needing hospitalizations until she  was 100, her son quickly realized that she would not cooperate with staff she decided was “beneath” her intellectually or otherwise. When she was given a room, the first thing her son did was to apprise the staff that she should be called “Mrs. Miller.” Things went perfectly for those who did. We won’t discuss the fallout when they didn’t.

Unthinking responses

On the other hand, Bebe, another strong woman who said her daughter was the best, admitted she had one complaint. Being somewhat hard of hearing, but not yet needing a hearing aid according to the audiologist, Bebe related a common occurrence that emotionally “hurt.” While she knew it wasn’t purposeful, she said it happened time and time again.

Bebe and her daughter would be having a conversation and Bebe would ask a question (that no doubt she’d asked before). Her daughter would say something like “Mother, this is the second time I’ve answered that question” or  “This is the second time you’ve asked that question.” Should we call attention to elderly parents’ imperfections–like hearing or benign forgetfulness– when they aren’t threatening life and limb?

It’s a delicate balance–physically and emotionally—where aging parents are concerned. There’s so much we can’t control. Yet we can try to control unthinking responses that tip that balance and cause hurt.

The flip-side is finding ways to help aging parents feel good. Praise, compliments, acknowledging past things we’ve learned from them, asking for advice–all raise feelings of self-worth………. as we try to help parents age well.

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Check out:“Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities, plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.

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