Help Aging Parents: A 98-year-old Teaches Us about Them and about Us–1

Sr. Advisor R would be the first to tell you she never gives advice unless asked.  She learned that early on.  “They usually just go ahead and do what they want…even when they tell you their problems, they don’t ask for advice.” (Those are the old people.) Her young friends, however, (younger than we), seek her advice on many subjects–including their aging parents. That said, we spent 4 1/2 hours together yesterday–affording me additional insights into why R is so valued.

R invited me to lunch at a restaurant with gorgeous landscaping–flowers galore–and wonderful food. Then she wanted to take me to a certain store and buy me the sun block she knew I needed and get herself some bedroom slippers. R obviously doesn’t drive. I picked her up, as do friends on such occasions. R gets out of the house, takes care of errands, and reciprocates by “treating” the friend who’s driving. Smart, right?

So I share with you advice from the half-day we spent together.

To begin, you need to know that like Grandma, her mother, R has devised expressions that she sprinkles throughout her conversation. My favorite Grandma-saying “Angels Can Do No More” legitimizes when people do all they can–sometimes to seemingly no avail. (I think about caregivers.) We need to appreciate when we’ve done our best. R often intersperses Grandma’s expressions with her own, never failing to credit Grandma where credit is due.

Be good to yourself. “Keep it simple” is a given in R’s life. “Make it easy for yourself,” she says. “You get too many things going on and it’s hard, especially as you get older.” Add to that her saying “Don’t abuse yourself, you get enough from the outside,” and you understand another aspect of R’s philosophy of living. Example: she doesn’t overdo eating rich food (that would constitute “abuse”), because she doesn’t feel good afterwards.  Call it discipline or call it not abusing yourself, call it knowing yourself well enough and acting on it.

Pay attention. Years ago R said she realized her head was doing one thing while her hands were doing something else and she was forgetting where she put things. She was widowed and living alone. There was no one to help her find a misplaced object. (Think misplaced glasses, keys.) She knew she needed to pay attention to what she was doing with her hands and avoid distractions. In all these years I’ve never known her to lose anything.

Help your memory. In her early married years her husband, who was older and whom she dearly loved, told her that it’s easier to put things down on a pad of paper and relieve yourself of having to remember them (but have the pad to come back to), than to try remembering everything. He said keeping all the stuff in your head isn’t what your brain is for. Result: R has a little note pad in each room. And her memory, at 98, is as good or better than mine.

This will be too long if I don’t stop momentarily…..To be continued Tuesday 

Help Aging Parents: Memory and Multi-tasking-continued from yesterday

“You just answered your questions,” Dr. Bud said. “Multi-tasking becomes problematical for older people at different ages, causing them to lose focus.”

Losing focus, he points out, is different from losing memory.  With the former something isn’t registering because of distraction, lack of concentration, a lapse.  Dr. Bud’s  example: our hands may do things automatically without it “registering” when we’re thinking about something else—like putting the car keys in an unlikely place because we see a file drawer, realize we need to get something out and need two hands to do so.

“When we find what we’ve misplaced, memory is re-established: ‘Oh yes, I went over to the file and put my keys down next to it in order to be able to open the drawer and take those papers out.'”

There is a solution for older people (and possibly for some of us as well) who experience these lapses. The key is to anticipate the need to maintain focus (for example when we have something in our hands), then concentrate.  Sr. Advisor R assures us it can be done. Indeed she lives alone and doesn’t lose things. And that should be reassuring.

On the other hand, we realize how this kind of forgetfulness can cause some older parents and their children to over-react, fearing this is the beginning of something serious.

Should this be the case we all need to realize it may be nothing more than neglecting the discipline to anticipate and focus; or it may be a reaction to medications or something else relatively benign. But should there be any doubt—

In our efforts to help parents age well, which include efforts to empower them, our parents’ primary physician is the first person to contact. Ideally our parents should be the ones to do that. We, of course, can offer to go with them to the appointment or even make the phone call for the appointment. We can reiterate the goal is to be certain there’s no problem.

And we can always take over if there’s great resistance and/or life or limb seem in jeopardy. That said, according to a neurologist at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital and Medical Research Center in White Plains, NY., a show of respect and actions that empower are most important at these emotional times.