Aging Parents: It’s the Haa, Haa-py-est Time of The Year?

First posted 12/09. A reminder…

Sharing with Santa


It’s The Haa, Haa–py–est Time of The Year

     The words and melody from the radio fill my car as I drive to the post office to mail the holiday cards. We have snow, it looks like a winter wonderland; and kids, amid shrieks of laughter and merriment, are sledding down our shared driveway on anything they can find that’s large enough to sit on. Sun is shining, snow balls are flying, and I’m certain school vacation is adding to this happiest of times.
     And then my counseling background kicks in and I remember that holidays aren’t always the happiest of times for people. So I decide to check in with a few older people and see how they’re doing. As a counselor, I’m trained to ask objective questions–not leading questions that will give me the answer I want (or think I want). That said, let me share my findings.
     The consensus seems to be, from my small sample–but there’s no disagreement–that this is the haa, haa-py-est time of the year for children who have none of the responsibilities of adulthood, for newly marrieds who are looking forward, and for young couples with children who still believe in Santa.
     It’s an especially happy time when older family members are geographically near enough to children and grandchildren so that they can gather together to celebrate and talk about shared past experiences. Meanwhile the excitement of the children in the family provides a background of energy and optimism.
     “The holidays are a time when our mind drifts back to past Christmases that were happy times. It’s a sentimental time,” recalls one 80-year-old widow. “It’s a wonderful time when families can get together, yet a lot of people are completely alone. As people get older, they have experienced losses. Especially for those who’ve lost their mates, other people’s happiness can be a reminder of the losses we’ve incurred. We’re just more vulnerable to that kind of thing when we get older.”
     “Unless there’s a lot of family around and a lot going on, it’s not the happiest time of the year. It’s depressing,” says a 70-year old man.
     There’s agreement that it takes effort for older people to find this a happy time. “It doesn’t just happen,” says one. “It’s what you you make of it when you’re older,” says another. “If you make the effort to be with people it’s good, but it can be exhausting. We may continue to decorate and continue to write the notes on the Christmas cards because we want our home to look festive an we like to get letters back after we write the notes. But we need to trim down and trim back so we aren’t too tire to enjoy.”
     So then I ask the question: How can younger people help? The answers:
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1. Keep in close contact with elders–aunts, uncles. Make sure they’re not forgotten.
2. A phone call even; it doesn’t have to be a visit. An old person related “I had a wonderful phone call from a far-away relative recently.” (Most old people prefer a phone call to an email.)
3. It’s nice to take older people out to something, but take them to something that is rather quiet, that isn’t too taxing an experience.
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Why not pick up the phone and talk with at least one older person who lives alone or feels isolated? We can brighten his or her day We can make older people feel special and cared about…because they are. Add we can add interest to their lives. Major studies confirm that connections are one of the most important factors in successful aging. It may not be the Haa, Haa-py-est time of the year for most older people, but we can make it better.

Do Adult Children Sometimes Hinder Older Parents’ Aging Well?–2

With 6 Important Questions to Ask Ourselves at End of This Post

It Takes A Village
(Taken from my manuscript)

A social worker who worked with older adults in New York, reminds us “It takes a village to raise a child,” then points out that at the other end of the life cycle “It takes a village to keep the grandparent in the village.”  Meet Bob.  For him the village provided both care management and relationships.

Bob had no family to watch out for him, yet he continued to live in the small suburban New York studio apartment he and his wife, Ruth, had shared until the day of his death at age 84.

He was 72 and retired on a small pension when Ruth died.  He had the beginnings of macular degeneration, was an unrepentant smoker, and had only a few friends.  But they supported him in his time of need by inviting him to dinner, giving him the key to their home so he could play their piano, and having him help them by walking their dogs when they were at work.  In all, five unrelated people, decades younger than Bob, looked out for him.

In the twelve years following Ruth’s death, Bob’s macular degeneration worsened; at 80 he quit driving.  One dog owner wrote his checks, which he signed, so his bills got paid.  Another friend took him marketing until walking became a problem, whereupon she did his grocery shopping.  Two years before his death he could walk only a short distance before wheezing, coughing, and labored breathing made walking difficult. Going to the doctor became difficult. At a certain point he refused to go for anything other than a flu shot.

Responding to a suggestion of assisted living, Bob let it be known that he had no intention of going into one of “those” places, where he’d have half the space and wouldn’t be allowed to smoke.  He didn’t need good vision to navigate his small apartment—or to light his cigarette for that matter.  His home was his anchor, his safe haven.

When his unopened mail overflowed the table, and food began to mold in the refrigerator, and the apartment became a mess, another of Bob’s younger friends called the town’s social services for the aged.  Bob was interviewed and charmed the social worker with his fine mind and love of music and poetry.

The result: Disaster Masters came to clean up—and out—Bob’s apartment, with Bob sitting there directing what stayed and what went.  Meals on Wheels began bringing food. A home-aide came for an hour, three mornings a week at 8am, to do laundry and straighten up before going to her other jobs.  The social worker arranged for three volunteers to come weekly for socializing. One, a woman, loved poetry and read poems to Bob every Thursday.

With the necessities taken care of and additional daily monitoring by two neighbors on his floor, Bob was able to remain in his apartment until the morning he died peacefully in his bed at age 84.

Bob had no family members to care for him.  He liked living alone.  Contrast his experience with that of Ellie’s grandmother, in Eastern Canada, who was surrounded by well-meaning family members.

A Flower Pulled up by the Roots

     “My grandmother was a farmer in the early days. Later she and my grandfather lived in a home with a big piece of property where Grandma raised flowers and vegetables.  She had such pride in her garden and was in it every day she could be.  When Grandfather died, her children wanted her to move to a smaller place and not have the burden of a large home and grounds and they talked to her about it—again and again and again. 

     “In time, Grandma said she would move.  I felt this was the wrong thing for her to do, since the garden meant so much to her, and with 28 relatives, I was going to organize it so she’d have someone visiting each day, could keep her independence, and could be monitored.

     “Finally, one day she said: ‘Put the house up for sale.’  She then moved in with my mother—and died a year later.”

According to the wise octogenarian (quoted previously in the manuscript), we also need to realize that “As you age, you lose the energy to fight… and give in.”  This may be the reason Ellie’s’s widowed grandmother finally agreed to move in with one of her children.

While the “village” enabled Bob to live out life on his terms without family involvement, the loving adult children and grandchildren who surrounded Ellie’s grandmother exerted influence that produced a different outcome.

With usually only one chance to do it right, asking ourselves the following questions can serve as guidelines for better decision-making:

  • When making decisions or promises, what is the priority: our needs or our parents’ needs?
  • Are our decisions aimed at maintaining parents’ independence until it’s no longer safe for them to remain as they are?
  • Are we mindful of not prematurely undermining any of the essential ingredients for aging well–self-esteem, independence, socialization, having fun (activities)?
  • Do we have all the information we need to make—or help our parents to make—the best informed decisions?
  • Is it possible that old emotions from our growing-up days creep into and influence our decision-making?
  • If unresolved relationship issues remain, does it make sense to seek the counsel of others when making important decisions?

(The above, taken from my manuscript, is copyrighted, nonfiction except for the names,
and may not be used without permission.)
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While most of us are no doubt excellent caregivers or reliable mainstays for our aging parents, there can be siblings as well as other family members who think they know what’s best. It’s not only frustrating, but can lead to outcomes that are worse for parents than if they had no children. Since we usually have only one chance to do it right, the guidelines for decision-making will hopefully come in handy as we invest ourselves in helping parents age well.

Note: Small changes on this page include News Briefs” above at far right.