We watch elderly parents make choices we swear we would NEVER do. Yet so many of our aging loved ones make the exact same decisions!
Despite being a psychologist for 20 years, I am convinced that if I don’t write these rules down I will too one day forget what I have learned watching mom and dad.
Dear future older me,
You are going to fall down and break something, something really important. It is going to be painful and frightening.
It happens to everyone but it is going to feel personal and like you did something stupid that you could have prevented.
Trauma thinking tricks you into thinking accidents are problems that can be solved if we were even more cautious and controlled. You are going to start second guessing how you move and then whether to move at all. This is a huge neon sign to not give in to this slippery slope.
Remember when mom broke her ankle. She was so debilitated we had to use a shower outside to try to save her dignity. She had to leave her home and be dependent on us. That was so hard.
So when my father got a wheelchair for his arthritis she was the one sitting in it, feeling clever that she had figured out how to prevent falling. She decided to get a “spare” just in case his chair had problems. She placed regular chairs everywhere so she could sit doing everything. (Are you getting visions the Disney movie Wallee where they glided in the space ship in those comfy chairs?)
She took for granted that she would be able to stand and walk if she really needed it.
Her fear and the solution in some ways were extremely rational. To take the risk and continue with physical therapy and push herself to move just a little more every day seemed crazy to her. Among the elderly stories are rampant of falling, breaking something, ending up in the hospital, catching pneumonia, and never coming out again.
She surrendered a better quality of life. Muscle tone does not just disappear out of your legs but every muscle when you give in to the fear of gravity. It affects the muscles to breathe, to pump your blood, or to lift yourself up when you fall. Because even if you plant your backside on a flat surface, you still fall asleep and roll off that wheelchair or your bed. Then there you are on the floor unable to shimmy yourself to get help. You are in the same and worse danger that you hoped to prevent.
Every month get rid of something. Or at least when you bring something in take something out.
The growing piles make you less able to have people over, prevents finding essential things you need as your memory gets spotty, sets up fall risks, makes you less mobile, and sets up a burden for your family to clean up the mess you leave behind.
The aging mind also makes you a cyborg, with every year your possessions become more like a part of you, and when your family suggests that you don’t need 3 woks, that jar of cotton balls, or this pile of newspaper, you will react like they have just come to amputate a hand.
Practice not being your possessions now. Be your experiences instead.
Make friends who are younger than you.
The truth is, if you win the genetic lottery, you are going to watch a lot of people die, move away, or become incapable of relationships due to their own deterioration. Therefore, you need to have a social circle that includes young and younger people.
Their activity is a goal to keep up with. They can appreciate your experience and mentoring. Be glad they will outlast you and tell stories of you.
This is the best cure for isolation and loneliness.
Pick a goal longer than your life.
This can be creating something that will outlast you: like a book, a website, a scholarship, a painting, a business, and etc.
This can also mean picking a project or a goal that is beyond your own expectations, so every day there will be a reason to chase it. Plan to visit every soccer stadium, decide to create an end to food shortage in you county. The depth of purpose doesn’t matter as long as it is just beyond what you think you can reach.
Put a limit on talking about your body and your past.
Not that you should not talk about it at all. All people talk about those subjects, but are these your main or only subjects? The elderly lose perspective of how much and how long they talking about both. They have lost the other person’s attention but have to get to the end of the list of surgeries, medication changes, or how they lost that one shot to rule the world.
Stop every once in a while and ask the other person if they had an experience like that. Ask yourself, what do I know about the person I am telling this too? What could I know about them? What can they take from this story?
If your reason for leaving the house is only to go to doctor’s appointments you are not living in the right place.
Live where you need to go out on a regular basis for the basics. In going out you are required to interact with people. You have to make eye contact with the grocery store clerk, say excuse me to the 3 year old throwing a tantrum, and ask for help reaching something.
Practicing these simple social scripts keeps anxiety and loneliness at a distance.
Do something that requires learning something new each day.
Find an answer to a crossword puzzle, learn a new word in another language, figure out how to use a piece of tech, learn how to sew something, or watch a youtube channel on someplace you have never been.
Add a new piece of knowledge no matter how small to keep from thinking you know everything you need to. It also prevents old tasks from seeming more and more difficult, if you have the confidence to add to your menu.
Ask if there is an easier way to do something.
Sure you are used to doing it one way, but maybe your family has a new idea that could work. Listen to the end, maybe you could use a piece.
Or maybe just acknowledge that they were kind in spending time thinking of you.
Offer to help someone with something.
Something as simple as folding laundry, pairing up socks, putting away dishes, and heating up a meal can make a huge difference to your super multi tasking family.
Even if it takes you all day to move something from one room to another, it gives you an opportunity to move and is one less thing they need to think about. So what if you can’t do their bills or watch the three kids anymore. Small can be significant.
Please, thank you and I love you.
Sometimes to get tasks to busy family members who stop by, “to do lists” come flying out when they arrive. I know you have a lot of time to think of things that should be done. However, the polite phrases go a long way in greasing the wheels. Prioritize what is most important and explain why. I still want to feel like your family and not your staff.
Linda Tamm, Psy.D.
Linda Tamm has been a clinical psychologist for over 20 years. You can find more about her at stridesinpsych.com. She has also been her parents’ caretaker through Alzheimer’s and Chronic Heart Failure for 15 years. Both have taught her more than she ever expected.