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.

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.    

 

Aging Parents: Father Knows Best

In honor of Father’s Day and fathers everywhere, of every age, living or not, I share these thoughts.

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Robert Young and Jane Wyatt, Father Knows Best courtesy Wikipedia

One of America’s popular radio programs, Father Knows Best,  (first aired in 1949) became a favorite TV program in the 50’s and 60’s. The TV version has been called “a classic  of American Pop Culture at its best.”

In those days I definitely thought my father knew best. And today when I called a colleague who taught in my school district (both of our fathers are now gone) and said “Happy Father’s Day, I bet you’re thinking about your father like I am about mine,” she responded “Yes, he was a wonderful father. He was a very practical man, and he was always right.” The last part of that sentence came as a surprise.

Pursuing the subject I asked if she could think of an example. Without hesitating she responded: “I wanted to teach in an Army school in Europe. It was before Viet Nam and I had already been accepted for a position teaching music at a school on an army base. I imagined myself in one of the larger cities. My father said “I don’t know why you’d want to go–you’ll be in some little town out in the middle of nowhere, not the big city you’re imagining.” That didn’t stop me. But he was right. I taught at an army base out in the middle of nowhere, but I don’t regret it.”

I, too, thought my father was always right. He was the smartest man I knew–even after meeting so many brilliant professors in college. In fact it wasn’t until I was 23 and unmarried, that my dad gave me some piece of advice about the men in my life, and I realized he was mistaken–wrong. It took me aback. Looking back it was no big deal. But I’ve obviously never forgotten it.

In those days, before Women’s Lib (later 60’s) and divorce reached the million mark (mid-197o’s), men were assumed to be “head of the family.” Early on in our marriage my husband recounted a story about his parents having a conversation in front of him. His father looked at him and asked  “Who’s the boss, son?”  My husband, who was 5 at the time answered: “You are–aren’t you, Dad?” That was then. He remembers his parents laughing.

Today, as we know, so much has changed. “Father Knows Best” wouldn’t be taken as gospel. Women head many families. (In 2011 about 13 percent of women over age 18 were the heads of their households, according to Women’s Health USA 2012.)

While husbands and wives today often share child rearing and other household responsibilities, there remain older men (plus younger men and men from other cultures) for whom “Father Knows Best” is of utmost importance to the way they see themselves–their self-image. Yet there comes a time for everyone–sooner or later–when father doesn’t know best about everything any more. Indeed adult children begin to know best in some (or most) instances.

So what do we learn and how does this impact our helping fathers and grandfathers age well? When “the time comes” we no doubt recognize it–or have recognized it, right? It’s such a delicate balance: preserving an aging parent’s dignity and self-respect while knowing we have the answer. How can we do/say things in such a way that an older person thinks it’s his idea; or he likes the way we’re presenting something and “buys into the idea,” keeping his self-worth and pride in tact? Since feeling pride and self-worth are major factors in healthy, happy aging, doesn’t it makes sense to keep this this in mind as we (or at least some of us) morph into “know-it-alls?”

We just need to know when–and how.

 


Help Aging Parents: I Just Called to Say I Love You

The flight back to NY will soon take off. Cell phones are active. One last conversation before we’re told to turn off all electronic devices–“anything with an on-off button,” says the flight attendant.  “I love you” seems a popular ending to the conversations. I’m thinking younger people use that expression a lot….sometimes so often that it seems to me its meaning is diluted, and I wonder how much it really means.

In the olden days it meant the world. Think Stevie Wonder and the popularity of the song whose title heads this post….. it continues: “and I mean it from the bottom of my heart.” I’m sitting on the plane for over 4 hours. My thoughts turn to aging parents, grandparents and elderly friends and I wonder how often they hear those–to their generation– tender words, especially when they live alone.

And then I think about care facilities and the “honeys” and the “sweeties” which clearly aren’t delivered in the empowering affectionate terms younger people experience. (If you’ve been reading my blog you know I find those terms diminishing, not endearing, to older people.)

So perhaps we should phone some elderly friends when we have unaccounted-for time and let them know how much we value them. We all know it’s important for older people to stay connected and I think it’s safe to say the elderly don’t receive that many compliments–or–what we used to call– “strokes.” And doesn’t a phone call show we really care? And doesn’t that make people feel good?  I know lonesome older people often talk and talk–and it’s much longer than we’d like; but that just proves how important the phone call is.

(….I’m recalling my father’s mother–an aging, small-of-stature, grandma-looking woman who would always tell us about any compliment she received.  I was a little girl then and it seemed strange that she would tell us about a compliment. In retrospect, it was obviously important to her–may have been one of the best things–or the best thing–that happened for her that week…)

My last thought is about the unconditional love from pets. R has said many times she’d love to have a pet again but at 98 she “doesn’t want to take on more responsibilities.” I get home very late tonight. She’ll be my first call in the morning.