When Aging Parents Can No Longer “Do.” Ways To Empower So They Can Continue to “Do.”

“No one likes to see a lessening of themself.”
Julia age 80+

I’ve never forgotten a counseling course at Teachers College.  We were told how important it is NOT to take something away from one’s psychological foundation (it gives us our psychological strength/confidence) without replacing it with something positive/helpful. To take something away and not replace it, weakens the foundation.

Yet normal age-related changes can take away–or at best lessen vision, hearing, energy, flexibility, strength and much else. As we try to help parents age well at some point we become aware of the “lessening” (which parents may have tried to cover up–think driving).

How can we support, compensate, empower or substitute so elders can continue to “do?”

While we know one size doesn’t fit all, we can do some of the leg-work and perhaps partner in the final “doing.”

Five Examples

1.  Julia, a noted master gardener and very proud woman–then in her 80’s– had less energy, less muscle strength and was physically less flexible. Bending and digging in her garden was painful. As a Mother’s Day gift, her adult children accompanied Julia (she still drove) to the nursery. She selected the plants; they planted Julia’s garden. Julia could continue to pick and enjoy the vegetables and flowers and pull a few weeds when she wanted to. With her children doing the physical labor, Julia  continued to do what she loved.

2.  Karen was an instinctively supportive daughter. She always bought more than she needed when items were on sale at the grocery store. Her mother (87) loved cooking, but food shopping was difficult and tiring, especially in NYC with taxis involved. So Karen, who worked full-time, would plan–on a weekly basis– an afternoon, take the “extras” to her mother and they’d cook together. Karen’s mother could continue to “do.” Priceless togetherness–plus her mother had a new supply of nutritious, delicious prepared food–some of which they froze.

3.  Failing hearing was creating a significant loss for Linda’s friend’s mother, whose mainstay was playing bridge. Her bridge group no longer wanted to play with her because of her hearing loss. The friend’s idea: replace  She continued her mother’s weekly bridge games–by asking 6 good friends to play in every-other-week rotations. (See “How a Good Friend Helps.”)

4.  Mobility problems can cause additional problems from falling to isolation. Thus how we support and substitute is key. If it isn’t easy for elders (and those who transport them) to get around, they don’t.  This means doing the research and getting it as right as possible the first time. Translated: initially buying the best required equipment, making certain it’s adjusted so the fit is right, and making certain one uses it correctly–especially canes and walkers (light-weight ones, heavier ones with a basket or tray and/or seat); and wheelchairs (companion wheelchairs, “regular” wheelchairs).  For still-driving people, perhaps a mini-van, whose back area easily accommodates a wheel chair (and obviously a walker), makes everything more doable.

(A polio victim’s son found a used Chrysler Town and Country mini-van for his 74-year-old mother, with a remote that opens/closes doors and the tailgate and a pushbutton inside that opens/closes the aforementioned. She has continued her life, causing little additional burden to anyone.)

5.  Safe driving requires good vision, hearing and reflexes. Carefully-planned solutions need to be substituted or result in isolation or unsafe driving. One daughter offered transportation for social outings when parents no longer drove at night. Since she or her siblings needed to know ahead of time, they and the parents decided on the one night parents would go out each week. With advanced notice they’d make themselves available 1-2 additional nights.

Towns/cities provide transportation services for seniors. Getting them to replace being able to jump into the car and go at will with a bus schedule can be difficult. That said, Aunt Mildred took the bus downtown to the Beauty School in Portland until she was in her early 90’s (and baked cookies for the drivers). When she moved to assisted living, a small bus came, by appointment, so she could continue her hair appointments at the Beauty School (where she also enjoyed gossip, and her manicure).

Creative thinking isn’t everyone’s forte. But we can tap our parents’ doctors, out-of-the-box-thinking friends with aging parents, and professionals specializing in geriatrics (ie. geriatric social workers) for ideas to supplement the “lessening”—as we try to help parents age well by continuing to “do.”

RELATED:  Mayo Clinic article on Canes
                        NY Times article re: problems from non-fitting canes
                        How to buy a cane
                        The Right Cane for Aging Parents  8/13/11 Help! Aging Parents

Note: “Of Current Interest” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities, plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.



Celebrating Elders’ Birthdays– What They Want; Not What We Want and Why

98th birthday

98th birthday

9 Factors to Consider

If we’re fortunate enough to have very old parents and grandparents who are still relatively healthy, chances are we become involved planning their birthday celebrations.

Sr. Advisor R will be 100 in  September. We are planning her party, again in her home town. There have been various kinds of parties for her over the years–taking into consideration health issues and energy. Indeed many variables that we might not think about become important for elders’ celebrations.


Comfort level
1.  Do they like large (20+) or smaller gatherings?
2.  Do they mind–or like–surprise parties?
Practical considerations
3.  Do they have the energy/stamina for the large party? the smaller? or neither?
4.  Do they wear dentures?*
5.  Can they travel?
6.  How large is the party budget?
7.  Are invites telephoned, emailed, or snail-mailed?
8.  Gifts or not?
9.  What about family members who don’t get along?

The “Whys” 

Many of us, regardless of age, have preferences for small or large parties. Sometimes, especially for milestone birthdays, we think BIG, when small may be better. Yet energy level and health are major factors that can–and should–determine size. For example, Senior Advisor R had experienced pneumonia followed by lesser health issues the winter-spring preceding her 90th birthday. They sapped her strength; she lost considerable weight. Getting back to normal took many months.

Thus she wanted a small dinner party for her 90th birthday in September: 12 family members plus her best friend, at her favorite restaurant. We complied. It was perfect. We followed up with brunch at our home the next morning, as R agreed that the 4 out-of-towners deserved more than a dinner. It felt like a festive weekend on a small scale.

We initially agreed on a large celebration for R’s 95th birthday, but R nixed the idea after we (she and we) compiled a guest list of nearly 100. Instead she wanted to be surrounded by the people who were meaningful in her life (family, her best friend, and certain young neighbors) at a restaurant.

These neighbors know how to help an old person continue to age well. They bring her newspaper to the door each morning; the mail from the mailbox at the street to the door each afternoon; 2 women call ahead each week when they plan to go marketing, inviting her to go with them or have them bring groceries to her. R says she doesn’t know how she could continue to live independently without them. They mean the world to her and, I think, she to them..

The next year one of these dear neighbors–at her home– gave R a 96th birthday luncheon. No present could compete with the genuine love and caring that was evidenced by that birthday luncheon. We took R out to dinner with her niece and nephew the next night. (Only one big outing a day at age 96.)

R’s subsequent birthdays have basically included family members, her one remaining friend and neighbors at a club that has been wonderfully cooperative and attentive. The staff makes R feel very special in just the right way.  The photo above is at her 98th birthday party there.

We will celebrate R’s 100th birthday in September with a smallish birthday party–at the club–inviting 18 family members and possibly one surprise guest. (A surprise we are positive would thrill her.) Because R finds she gets too tired to enjoy herself when she must talk with too many people, she suggested two small parties. In October she’d like a simple, second party–around 18 guests: the neighbors and meaningful others in her life. In R’s case, it’s divide and enjoy.

We realize it’s not about what we want, or we think R would want. Rather it’s about what we know R wants. While she needn’t plan birthday parties any more, she still has definite ideas about what she likes.
*          *          *

Tuesday we focus on birthday party ideas, sharing a sample of past celebrations–some really good, one bad, one….well, you’ll need to decide for yourself.



.Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.