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.
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Aging Parents: The Value of Walking With Your Parents if You’re Over 44

What we and aging parents need to know about postponing
age-related changes

An October 10, 2010 Jane Brody column in the NY Times about age-related changes, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/health/26brody.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=general continues to be timely. I was reminded of this column as I passed a former neighbor’s home. A garage sale was in progress.

I hadn’t seen my former neighbor, Jane, since last fall, yet I had known  her well and watched her children grow up.  Her husband died prematurely and last fall she introduced me to an important man in her life, Pete.  He was moving here, she said, to be with her.

She shared that Pete was an only child; didn’t want to leave his mother out west.  So although his mother was in her late 80’s she too was moving here into a really nice apartment they had furnished for her, complete with her recently-shipped-out furniture.

I gently questioned about leaving friends, doctors, other supports behind and was told Pete’s mother never went out, just sat home and watched TV, so it really didn’t matter whether she was here or back home. It was the same TV, the same furniture, only now she could be near her son plus Jane. And they could both help her.

As I looked at the sale items neatly organized on the lawn and driveway I spotted a walker. Since another neighbor was a partner in this garage sale I asked “who’s walker was that?”

“Oh, that was Pete’s mother’s, she died a few months ago.”
“I remember she was coming out here,” I said.
“Yes, she came, but it turned out she had a lot wrong with her that we never knew about,” Jane offered.  “She had congestive heart failure among other things. I guess I should have realized.  During the years I’ve known her she stopped walking unless it was absolutely necessary.  She used to go into the market with us to shop, but made excuses to stay in the car the last few years.  And all she did was watch TV.  I realized her figure changed–I guess from so much sitting–her waist, hips, legs got bigger from sitting around and the congestive heart failure, I guess.”

I offered my sympathy.

Jane Brody’s column immediately came to mind. We learn that lifestyle choices we make from midlife on can influence the damage from age-related changes and impact our functioning in late life.

Then a book by Mark Lachs, director of geriatrics at the New York-Presbyterian Healthcare System becomes the focus. Dr. Lachs identifies two major influences (among others) that impact how well older people function and we learn that we start to deteriorate (my words) without realizing it at an early age.

Around age 30, for example, muscle strength begins its unnoticed decline until we have muscle weakness. While this may not affect healthy people’s lives until they’re 80-90, lifestyle choices, whether we make them at 50 or 90, can allow us to postpone that rate of decline.

Dr. Lach writes, for example, that if you begin walking daily at age 45, you could delay immobility to 90+. Conversely, immobility can impact a couch potato as early as 60.

Check out Jane Brody’s column and check out Dr. Lach’s book, Treat Me, Not My Age, (Viking) http://treatmenotmyage.com/.  Think I’ll give his book to a 45-year-old friend; it could also be a Father’s Day gift.

Older people may respond to and prefer advice from a book or, as I’ve often mentioned, “from their doctor,” rather than from us adult children. If this information can help us and help our parents to age well–isn’t it a win-win?