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?


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.


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: Do We Do Right By Them? Culture, Values, Attitudes and Pope Francis I

Is our value system responsible for older people, seniors, those over 55 or 65, feeling they are of diminished importance in today’s world 

Are we self-centered and youth obsessed, living in a fast forward culture?
Do we give our elders the respect due them?
How often do they resign themselves to having to fend for themselves when they, indeed, need some help–or simply more attention?

And is older people’s reluctance to impose along with their acceptance of having to fend for themselves, the main reason they decide to leave their homes of many decades in exchange for independent or assisted living or a retirement community–so they “won’t be a burden” to their children? Lastly does moving tend to isolate them–geographically and emotionally–from family and friends?

Focus: two TV programs (King’s Point [HBO] and Love it or List it Too [HGTV]) Monday night plus today’s Papal election, highlight the contrast in cultures, values and attitudes towards aging.

King’s Point follows–over a period of 10 years–a group of probably middle-class, New Yorkers who left the cold winters in NY to retire to Florida’s attractive KIng’s Point retirement community.

Decades ago, as retirees, they were undoubtedly healthy, active and eager to enjoy golf, stimulating comradery, and the appealing amenities at King’s Point.  Now (about 30 years later) they are widows, widowers, with health issues, and life issues, making the best of their situation–far from family and friends with no options for returning to NY. They are lonesome. These seniors are making the best of it, with far-away adult children whom they don’t want to burden. Bottom line. It’s sad  (granted, this may depend on the TV viewer’s age). Sad for them and a sad commentary about our culture, its values and its options for older people.
*          *         *

An aging relative generated the need to remodel and expand a family’s home or move to a new one on Love it or List it Too, where family relationships ran very deep. The family, from India, now had the husband’s uncle or great-uncle living with them (reason unknown).

The uncle was given the master bedroom; the husband and wife moved to a smaller bedroom. The three children had reduced space which created problems; thus thoughts of buying a larger home and listing their home for remodel and perhaps sale were in progress.

When questioned, there were gentle references to their culture. The husband said, in essence, he was proud to be able to give his aging uncle the master bedroom. Honoring elders no doubt.
*          *           *

Lastly, a new Pope was elected today and he is 76-years-old.  After the announcement, while awaiting the appearance of newly-named Pope Francis I this afternoon, TV news anchor, Brian Williams, mentioned NBC provided him many briefs of the possible candidates, which included the new Pope–Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina–with a notation that he was probably too old (my take on the exact words–though I think I’m very close).

Obviously age was not a major factor in the culture and value system of the 115 members of the College of Cardinals who selected 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the esteemed and important position of heading the Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion members.

Honoring Elders. Culture. Values. Attitudes.

Generations living together was common in our country in the old days; clearly not now, with our busy lives. While we who care deeply about aging parents and family members do the best we can, would we give up our master bedroom? ….And even if we did, would an aging parent accept?

Pope Francis I has an obvious big job ahead; but I’m thinking there’s another big job that’s not so obvious: by example, reshaping attitudes to the extent that our youth-oriented culture understands older people still “can do.” Being given the respect they have earned–and so deserve–older people in our society would no longer feel like Dad’s brilliant 90-something-year-old friend who said years ago–“I feel like the flotsam and the jetsam.”



Inadvertently Diminishing Aging Parents

Beware! Diminishing, Demeaning–Undoubtedly Making Older People Feel Like Excess.

Do we cringe when someone diminishes an aging person? Do we even notice? (For me, it’s like someone running their fingernails over one of those old, chalk blackboards of our youth.)

Once sensitized, we realize it’s a common daily occurrence, although possibly unwitting. Let’s look at 3 examples.

1.  Many people assume if you’re old, you can’t be treated like a normal functioning human being. I don’t think it’s mean-spirited, it rather seems like a given that accompanies aging. Is it thoughtless or a response to a stereotyped idea of older people?

While, there’s no strong lobbying voice yet to create the awareness that it’s not politically correct, I’m guessing things will change as Boomers age a bit more.

In the meantime, be aware of the many alert, mentally capable elderly people whose lives are unintentionally diminished by unthinking people–trying to be helpful when unnecessary, talking unnaturally to them assuming they don’t understand or can’t hear (you’ll think of other things) and try to reduce possibilities for your parents.

2. What’s in a name? How often do caregivers and others call older people by diminishing names? Honey, Sweetie, Dear, Darling.  I think of Sidney Potier in The Heat of the Night saying: “They call me Mr. Tibbs,” after being addressed as “boy” by a southerner in the movie. Many older parents hesitate to correct people, especially when they depend on them as caregivers or hospital staff.

I think of a good friend’s mother who, for her entire life, wanted to be addressed as “Mrs. Miller.”  A fine line existed that no one should cross if they wanted a relationship with– and/or cooperation from–her. That fine line included anything that diminished dignity and unearned familiarity fell into that category.

As she aged and grew more fragile, trips to “emergency” increased. With each visit, the first thing her son made clear was to call her “Mrs. Miller.” She required that respect; they needed to comply.

In the same vein, I recall a college rep from California visiting East Cost high schools. She was worried–because she was away and her mother was hospitalized–that someone would call her “Honey” or “Sweetie” and her mother would cave into the diminished feeling and not make the needed effort to recover from a serious health event.

3. Older people in wheel chairs don’t escape being diminished, in fact often they’re treated like they aren’t even there when accompanied by a younger person.

I think about Katy’s mother who, in her late-80’s, needed a wheel chair when there was a lot of walking involved. She was a smart, with-it woman, married to a judge. Katy noticed that if they were going shopping, for example, the “sales associate” would address remarks to Katy, even though Katy’s mother initiated the conversation. Katy reports this occurred in doctors’ offices, at hospital registration, you name it.

Contrast this with taking a smart, with-it teenager (who’s in a wheel chair for some not-observable reason) shopping. If he/she initiates a question, the teenager is answered…the clerk doesn’t look past the teenage to answer us. Check it out!

When we find ourselves involved in a Katy’s-mother-type experience think about Katy’s response, “You know, Mother asked the question.” It’s a good model.

It nicely redirects the conversation to her mother so the mother maintains self-esteem and the sales person or whoever is aware of the competent elder person he/she should be speaking to. (And even if he/she doesn’t “get it” completely, our parent isn’t demeaned by exclusion from the conversation.)

We are so often on fast-forward that these diminishing experiences can be easily ignored. But older parents, who usually have less going on in their lives and therefore may attach greater significance to things we hardly notice, say: “It chips away a little at a time.” Obviously to help parents age well, we don’t want them to feel “chipped away.”