Slowed-down Aging Parents–What I never realized

“I’m late, I’m late……..”*

(Joints stiffen. Less agility. More wisdom. More Caution.
Does slowing down begin earlier than we realize?)

While I don’t remember the time (it was decades ago), I do remember the place: inside a New York taxi. I found a credit card on the floor and tried to decide whether to leave it with the driver or take it home and try to locate the owner.

The next time I took a taxi, after paying and before getting out, I took a few seconds to look at the back seat and floor to be certain I hadn’t left anything. Taking precautions.

How does this relate to aging parents slowing down?

I’d never before thought of accidentally leaving something in a taxi. But from the moment I realized the possibility, double-checking before exiting became normal for me. It  took a bit longer getting out of a taxi from then on.

I’m guessing we’ve all experienced moments similar to this– that caused us to adjust our actions so we continued to do what we previously did–only not as quickly.  As we get older our experiences multiply, generating wisdom and opening our eyes to potential problems we’d never thought about (eg. the necessity to double-check).  Then add age-related problems and dwindling energy.  Understandably people slow down. For fast-forward adult children (who may not realize this is happening to them too), pokey parents can frustrate and annoy.

Last month I had lunch with a friend (and former colleague) on her 92nd birthday. For at least two decades we’d celebrated with a birthday lunch that included one of her college friends (now 90). Both women were educators. That’s how I knew them.

Very bright and able (one was recruited for the Manhattan project), they attended the same college, one of the “Seven Sisters.” People would say they have aged well, yet they clearly have aging issues. During lunch, while we discussed politics (often an ongoing discussion in NY), and the accomplishments of their children and grandchildren, and caught up on what others are doing, the theme of “time” was always in the mix–whether explicit or implicit.

The women (with varying degrees of macular degeneration) and now widowed, discussed how long it took them to do things now, as compared to their younger, working years. They were well-aware they have slowed down. The one with better vision continues to drive to a responsible supervisory position but only two half-days a week now; the one with greatly impaired vision taught college math into her early 80’s. Currently she has a daytime companion to drive her and help keep her home in order.

They talked about how much time it takes just to get ready to go out in the morning. Interestingly things we take for granted, like the physical act of dressing, slows older people down.

Think about stiff joints and arthritis…and vision. Then think about buttons, zippers, or–for women–the clasp on a necklace or fastening a bra (which some do from the front before turning it around to the back), or the physical act of slipping something over one’s head.  How much additional time does it take to differentiate dark blue from black? (Try sorting those socks.) Have you ever seen an older man wearing one black sock and one dark blue sock?

There’s age-related slowing down (vision, hearing, muscle loss, stiff joints) plus, Sr. Advisor D noted, psychological slowing down that comes from caution and concerns. She stressed a prevailing fear of falling (and breaking a bone, a hip) among the old, old-old, and oldest old.

There’s also “a persistent worry about forgetting,” she said, “so there’s added urgency– the feeling they must take care of a thing right away before it’s forgotten.” This causes older people to double-check themselves to make certain they did–or will do– it right. And they don’t multi-task well because they realize multi-tasking diverts concentration and can easily lead to forgetting.  Concentrating on one thing at a time is a good strategy, but takes more time.

We may become frustrated and impatient when aging parents seem so pokey. Assuming they have a perfectly good mind, we can easily become intolerant when they’re keeping us waiting while they finish getting ready for something important like a doctor’s appointment.

Should we leave some wiggle room (tell a little lie) when giving aging parents a time they need to be ready? It can’t hurt. We only need to remember to be diplomatic when we ask them to write it down on their calendar or put it in their smart phone. Otherwise, if they’re late, we are partially at fault, aren’t we.


* Smidge of original dialog from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland