Aging Parents and Memorial Day 2014


Can we look into the hearts of old people?

Things change. Values change–both at a rapid rate. It’s part of today’s world and we deal with it. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the impact on our elders as we continue with our busy lives. A one-minute video, with no spoken words, looks into the heart of a WWII veteran.

In the old days the name, Memorial Day, and date, May 30th, were carved in stone– or so I thought when I was a girl. I didn’t know that before WWII Memorial Day had been called “Decoration Day,” although I remember hearing that name. The 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act changed “carved-in-stone” dates to days that would allow for a 3-day holiday weekend and took effect in 1971.

We’re accustomed to the 3-day weekends. We take the opportunity to get away for a short vacation. Some think Memorial Day is the start of summer. We have family picnics. There are fewer parades. In our hearts and minds we respect the holiday, see the flags flying, know “Fleet Week” has arrived in New York. But, unless we have family in the military, I doubt we can tap into what Memorial Day means to those who have served–especially those who served over a half century ago, still possessing the memories (told and untold) and the pride.

While that which old people hold dear is disappearing faster and faster, it remains in their hearts. I want to try to remember that as I interact with the elders in my life. Most of us won’t have that special commonality we see between grandfather and grandson in the aforementioned video. We have not experienced their experience.

That said, whether our older family members and friends are enjoying a family picnic, lying in a bed at home or in a care center, Memorial Day offers another chance to bring them pleasure, a chance to enhance their sense of self-worth by showing an interest in their past or asking about Decoration Day.

And for us, we may gather some wisdom and learn some history (possibly priceless family history), while doing our part to help parents and our elders age well. Another win-win!

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
George Santayana. The Life of Reason, Vol 1.

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



Aging Parents: Feeling Alone in a Crowded Room–plus 2 Additional Reasons They May Not Want to Go Out Any More

It may all boil down to pride; staying home is safe.

No one likes to feel diminished, whether it’s unintentional or not. Yet going someplace where interaction with others is the norm can pose a threat to older people’s pride and self-esteem when they have certain aging issues. I think it’s safe to say many–if not all– older people begin to recognize what octogenarian Julia calls “a lessening of oneself,” adding “it’s not pleasant.”

When others no longer pay attention to them and/or or older people don’t want others to discover their “lessening,” thoughts of being with others away from home can be emotionally troubling. Three issues (you may think of more) that can cause this.

1. Mobility
2. Vision
3. Memory

Mobility: We Can Change This Scene

I’m was at a family gathering that included my oldest cousin (age 88) a widow, now living in Assisted Living due to heart and mobility problems. My cousins’ ages have a big spread. Many cousins (plus some of their children, grandchildren and a great- grandchild) were at the gathering. Age range was 2-90 (a cousin’s husband).

Since I live across the country I don’t see family members often. Things change in a year as we know. I try to remember Sr. Advisor’s wise words: Don’t assume. Nevertheless, I keep being surprised.

I was surprised, upon arriving at the gathering, to find my oldest cousin (a once capable working mother and volunteer) sitting basically alone in the living room, in a very hard-to get-out-of chair, while the rest of the family was socializing outside on the patio or busying themselves placing food on the nearby table for a buffet-style meal.

From time to time the youngest would run through the living room, with his aunt in hot pursuit.  My oldest cousin was in the scene but out of the action….ignored.  She could not move from the current chair without help. Evidently no one thought about that.

As she and I talked, I asked if she was comfortable or would prefer sitting on the patio. She wasn’t comfortable, she said, and two of us helped her out of the deep-cushioned chair and walked onto the patio with her. We found a suitable chair with a firm seat and arms from which she could stand up and walk (if someone put her walker into position for her). She was back in the action.

In hindsight we can change the scene by:

  • initially providing a sturdy armchair (with a firm seat) which is easy to get up from. A wheel chair would work even better for those who use a wheel chair.
  • watching that no one is ignored
  • having a sit-down meal, using informal place cards, for compatible seating

Seder: The O’Learys, the Steins, 99 1/2-year-old R, Us + 47 others, a previous post this year, is a model of sensitive people hosting a large event that includes an old person who hasn’t the energy to move around a lot.

Vision: We can be the eyes in an unobtrusive way

I think about a good friend whose mother was declared legally blind in her 90’s. My friend had an innate understanding of how to help parents age well–respecting and empowering. She related how her mother no longer wanted to go out if there would be too many people she knew. Her vision was so poor that she feared she wouldn’t recognize someone she knew well and that would be embarrassing.

We can’t change the scene, but we can safeguard elders’ pride and self-esteem.

  • When in a smallish group it was easy for my friend to remain by her mother’s side and whisper the names of people who were heading towards them. (Her mother didn’t want to be embarrassed by having her daughter say “You remember so-and-so.”)
  • Or she would take the initiative and say, for example, “Hello, Kristi” so her mother had the name before needing to use it.
  • When parents no longer drive but otherwise seem unchanged, let the person driving your parent know about the vision loss so when people can come over they can initiate “Hello Mary, it’s so-and-so.” or I’m so-and-so.


Memory issues seem more tricky. I am told a very successful man–once a leader in his community–was invited to a party all his friend would be attending. He had memory loss that was worsening. His wife, assuming it would be good for him to be with his old friends and attend a happy event, was insisting he go. He didn’t want to go, but gave up arguing. Instead he decided not to get dressed for the party.  His pride wouldn’t allow him to be any less of a person than his old friends knew and remembered. His wife didn’t get it….until he finally “put his foot down” in a way she couldn’t ignore.

As we try to help parents age well, we realize that older people can be easily marginalized by unthinking people–even caring people who would be appalled if they realized what they were(n’t) doing. Why does it seem easy to forget our elders have pride?
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Note-New: Check out “Of Current Interest” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities about cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s, plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.    


Seniors’ Insecurities–What We Should Know to Help Parents Age Well–continued

Are we aware of our parents’ insecurities or do they cleverly hide them? Why do they do this?
Because of: pride, our youth-oriented culture, denial, valuing independence
What are the insecurities?
Concern about meeting responsibilities, looking old,
acting old, forgetting, having an accident, losing mobility, losing sight, losing control and probably most of all, fear that their children will make them move.
Our psychiatrist-senior advisor, Dr. Bud, explains: With aging comes loss.  When normal aging changes impact what we’ve taken for granted throughout our life, (eg. vision, hearing, strength, ability to heal rapidly, move quickly, enjoy mobility, count on our memory)–a sense of loss occurs–sometimes a profound sense of loss can occur. Loss can undermine confidence and create insecurities. There’s a new reality. “We can’t do what we used to do.”
To begin, there can be problems with Acceptance: Julia (who won’t tell her age until she’s 100–OK that’s pride)–is a real, very wise person in my unpublished book. Involved in a discussion with other octogenarians about when older people should stop driving, she says pointedly: “A lot of people can’t be honest with themselves and try to be something they can’t be. It’s acceptance,” she continues, “an accepting of a lessening of yourself and it’s not pleasant. But you have to settle for some of this.”
And there’s Denial: We’ve all seen people who deny aging by their actions and their affect (the way they look). The cliche is the old man flirting with the young women– and the young “trophy wife.” R once told us that one of her trying-to-act-young contemporaries  (both in their 90’s at the time) was still “teetering around” on high heels. We knew this woman’s son and when we asked how his mother was, he responded that she was still wearing those high heels and he feared she would fall one day. (She never did.)
3.  Pride is a motivator that keeps older people looking good and meeting responsibilities.  In our youth-oriented society, it’s not cool to be seen as old. Independent elders, like Sr. Advisor R, take care to maintain their image. They make the effort and take all the time necessary to look as good as possible. They’ve learned to compensate for vision loss, hearing loss, hair loss, energy loss, etc. and many do physical and mental exercises. While they are more cautious, especially when vision impairs seeing well at night, they are more graceful about it. R will now ask for your arm when stepping of the curb to cross a street–a direct, dignified request.
R isn’t driven by our youth-oriented culture. Perhaps it’s because she learned grown up responsibilities when very young. She says her father taught her to be responsible very early on due to family illness. That included learning to take a streetcar by herself to get places. And R has accepted “the lessening,” figuring out how to compensate so she can do most of the things she has done since she was widowed in her early 50’s.
She still lives alone and independently, knows what’s going on, helps friends, supports her favorite charities, and has love and admiration from–I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say–every young person (boomer and younger) who spends 5 minutes with her.
I’ve quoted R many times, saying (once she entered her 90’s) that “things get more difficult each day.” We believe her, but don’t see the evidence except where energy is concerned. So what do we, adult children, do? We try to empower. We respect her wishes. We give legitimate compliments and praise when appropriate. If she doesn’t ask, we keep most suggestions to ourselves. We try to supplement groceries or make things easier in any way we can during the months we’re with her.
A geriatric social worker said once “It takes a village to keep the grandparent in the village.” To that end, R’s neighbors wheel her garbage and recyclables to the street and back each week, bring the daily newspaper and mail to her back door, leave flowers, baked goods, little notes by her back door, and two women (one 51, the other a boomer) phone each week when they go grocery shopping–inviting her to go with them or asking what they can get for her.
How fortunate older people are when they have thoughtful, caring neighbors who value older people and help make aging in place possible; and how grateful far-away-living children are for these wonderful neighbors who fill in the gaps (thus unseen insecurities don’t overwhelm), and–in general–help parents age well.