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.    


Help Aging Parents: I Just Called to Say I Love You

The flight back to NY will soon take off. Cell phones are active. One last conversation before we’re told to turn off all electronic devices–“anything with an on-off button,” says the flight attendant.  “I love you” seems a popular ending to the conversations. I’m thinking younger people use that expression a lot….sometimes so often that it seems to me its meaning is diluted, and I wonder how much it really means.

In the olden days it meant the world. Think Stevie Wonder and the popularity of the song whose title heads this post….. it continues: “and I mean it from the bottom of my heart.” I’m sitting on the plane for over 4 hours. My thoughts turn to aging parents, grandparents and elderly friends and I wonder how often they hear those–to their generation– tender words, especially when they live alone.

And then I think about care facilities and the “honeys” and the “sweeties” which clearly aren’t delivered in the empowering affectionate terms younger people experience. (If you’ve been reading my blog you know I find those terms diminishing, not endearing, to older people.)

So perhaps we should phone some elderly friends when we have unaccounted-for time and let them know how much we value them. We all know it’s important for older people to stay connected and I think it’s safe to say the elderly don’t receive that many compliments–or–what we used to call– “strokes.” And doesn’t a phone call show we really care? And doesn’t that make people feel good?  I know lonesome older people often talk and talk–and it’s much longer than we’d like; but that just proves how important the phone call is.

(….I’m recalling my father’s mother–an aging, small-of-stature, grandma-looking woman who would always tell us about any compliment she received.  I was a little girl then and it seemed strange that she would tell us about a compliment. In retrospect, it was obviously important to her–may have been one of the best things–or the best thing–that happened for her that week…)

My last thought is about the unconditional love from pets. R has said many times she’d love to have a pet again but at 98 she “doesn’t want to take on more responsibilities.” I get home very late tonight. She’ll be my first call in the morning.

Aging/Elderly Parents: Self-Esteem–Vulnerable

Weddings and bridal showers are usually intergenerational events. The celebratory feeling during that time gives old and young the opportunity to easily interact, sharing–for a brief period– a commonality most of us have experienced.  

My friend’s mother–86, independent and in-charge–had a diminishing experience at her granddaughter’s bridal shower, an experience even my friend, Katy (a perfect aging parent’s daughter) couldn’t have anticipated.

After the shower, on the way home, she remarked to Katy (who sat far from her mother at the shower) that she was upset. Why? A “young girl” (actually an adult in her early twenties) came over, introduced herself, sat down, and they had “a really nice conversation” until the end when the “girl”–getting ready to leave–said: “I really enjoyed talking with you, Gran.” 

“Gran.” Katy’s mother was crest-fallen. “Gran:”a name even her grandchildren didn’t use. No explanation or rationalization that this was probably the endearing term the “girl” used with her own grandmother, could erase the negative effect of one no doubt well-intentioned word…a word that diminished a grandmother who considered herself (and was) a “with-it,” normal woman–not an old lady. This sensitivity even surprised sensitive Katy.

It’s hard to get into the head of older people; indeed the above may seem trivial. Yet with-it aging parents who don’t consider themselves old hope others don’t either. The way we feel about ourself, self-esteem, occupies the list of important factors for aging well (along with independence, decent health and connections [friends]).

We try our best to help aging parents. Clearly we can’t protect them from everything.  When we have a relationship with our parents that allows them to share unpleasant experiences, we’ve “done good.” Instead of offering a possible rationalization, perhaps acknowledging the feeling (hurt, diminished) then reinforcing elderly parents’ self-esteem with a laundry list (or shorter) of experiences affirming “young-old,” or being “with it” can soften the blow.      

For common subtle (and less subtle) diminishing interactions that we might–or might not–notice, click my August post:                                                                              

Help Aging Parents: When Shorter Days=Depression or Doldrums

Six Suggestions to Help Aging Parents
Through the Shorter Days of Autumn and Short, Dark Days of Winter

Why? Just as sunshine usually gives us a better outlook, the arrival of autumn (on Wednesday) with less sun, cooler weather, falling leaves, and ultimately barren trees and dark days has the opposite effect on many.  To help parents age well with a positive attitude six suggestions follow.

–Structure it so aging parents–especially those who are homebound– have daily connections with family members and friends (old friends new friends, your children, your childhood friends if they still see your parents, clergy). It can help avoid a “funk” or get them out of a “funk.”

-Arrange for letters, notes, faxes, e-mails, (hard copies can be shared with friends and reread), phone calls, Skype to arrive daily. Fax and e-mail take little time, require no conversation, yet bring stimulation to aging parents along with the knowledge someone is thinking about them–great for busy children.

–Remember that “carrots,” plans to do something at a future time, give aging parents something to think about and look forward to.

–Asking advice in a phone call, e-mail etc. doesn’t happen as much with older people. To be asked reinforces self-esteem–the feeling of being able to contribute, of being needed.

–Sharing appropriate personal thoughts and feelings–with or without asking for input–is flattering (promotes self-esteem) and inclusive.

–Discussing news and exchanging ideas is stimulating. And who doesn’t like gossip!

The highly regarded 1987 MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America (along with other studies) identified social connectedness as one of the three most important factors in successful aging.  The more people in an aging person’s life, the better.

So in the dark, dreary months ahead, connections with others take on even more importance.  They provide stimulation.  They help older parents combat feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression.  And that makes our life easier too.

In addition, an elderly person’s feeling that he or she matters–that someone cares–is priceless.  And isn’t that a big part of what helping parents age well is all about.