Balance an Elder's Sense of Purpose and Dignity with Their Safety


Seniors need to feel useful, by doing activities and hobbies they enjoy. When should caregivers interfere if they see danger in elders' activities?

Joe was in his 80s and lived in his own home. He was my first care receiver. Joe was totally deaf, so to communicate with each other, he spoke and I wrote on a large legal pad.

One day, when I hurried into his house through the back door at my usual visiting time, I sensed something odd. Generally, Joe would be sitting at his kitchen table waiting for me. This time, there was no sign of him.

I ran down the basement steps, since he'd fallen down there before. No Joe. Then, back upstairs, I heard a rustling noise coming from his bedroom. There was Joe, whose gait on a flat surface was wobbly at best, standing halfway up a metal ladder. He was jabbing, with needle-nose pliers, at a light fixture in his closet. There was no bulb in the fixture and the electricity was on. Dangerous territory. Joe saw me and gleefully screeched, "Hold the ladder, honey! I'll be down in a minute."

Needless to say, I was frantic. I grabbed the tablet and wrote in big letters "GET DOWN!" He just laughed. This scene ended with me turning off the fuses in the fuse box so he wouldn't electrocute himself. He eventually tottered down off the ladder and we had some laughs. Joe couldn't understand why I was upset. He was just trying to fix the light. It was his house, after all.

A question on the forum brought this scene back to my thoughts. The person wrote, "My 81-year-old father still thinks he can do handyman duties around the house (including climbing ladders, using power tools, etc.) How do I convince him this is dangerous and he must stop?"

Indeed. How do we get elders to stop doing "handyman" tasks, doing yard work that should be hired out or even extensive kitchen work? Everyone needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning. If a person has no purpose in life, why go on living? For elders whose bodies – and sometimes minds – seem to betray them more each day, this becomes an issue.

We adult children want to keep our parents safe. There are common sense things we are aware of. If Dad can't drive without an evident risk of killing himself or others, we need to stop him from driving (one of a caregiver's most daunting tasks). But, if Dad just wants to play handyman, which has been his greatest purpose since he retired from his paying job, when do we have the right and/or responsibility to step in and say, "You've got to stop that. You may get hurt." Or do we even have that right?

How to Keep Parents Safe from Dangerous Hobbies and Activities

It's very easy to get overly protective of our elderly parents. We don't want to see our mom or dad fall. We certainly don't want Dad to get electrocuted or Mom to get burned lifting hot pans from the oven. But, what of their pleasure, their sense of self? When do we interfere?

My dad had brain surgery that threw him into severe dementia, which necessitated his move to a nursing home. In the first years after the surgery he would go through streaks of "getting in shape." This was a man who spent his life with his nose buried in books. Suddenly he wanted me to get him hand weights, which I did. If he was in a non-sleepy mood, he could sometimes be found sitting in his recliner lifting weights. This was great for him and the staff was pleased.

However, in the same mood, he would decide to race his wheeled walker up and down the hall of the nursing home. Rather than wait for help to get him balanced on his walker, he'd get himself up. Generally, he was okay. The staff would chuckle about the fact that Dad would come zooming out of his room and start racing his walker down the hall as though in a competition. The problem was, he had no judgment. There would be days when he was too sleepy or off balance to get up safely on his own. But he'd try anyway. And he'd fall. What to do?

All kinds of alarms and other options were tried, and he'd circumvent everything that made basic sense. Anything too restricting caused such psychic misery, we had to let go. We knew there would be falls, but we also knew that restraints weren't an option. Dad needed some freedom or his life, to him, wasn't worth living.

Often, people with Alzheimer's or other dementia will perk up if they have a task to do. Most adult day care centers have a variety of activities, and can determine from the person's past what they may like doing. Some women enjoy folding laundry. That's what they did when they kept house. They feel useful. Others like to bake. Some enjoy gardening. Good day care centers and nursing homes foster a sense of purpose for the people they are caring for. Home caregivers need to do the same.

Should the elderly father mentioned previously be made to give up his handyman ways? I'm certainly not close enough to the situation to say one way or the other. If he's doing things like Joe did, well, I'd try to persuade him to back off a bit. If he's trying to use power tools, you may have to so some creative "breaking" to stop him from cutting off his fingers. But I wouldn't stop it all-together, and I wouldn't step in too early.

My father-in-law always had a "shop" in the basement. For as long as he could, he'd drag himself down the stairs to his shop. He always loved to put cane seats in antique chairs, and that gave him a purpose for years. When he could no longer go to the basement to do this work, a little part of him died. Piece by piece, he lost his sense of purpose in life. I watched him fade away until the last stroke took him. I believe he was ready to go. His work was done.

Each person is different, but I think nearly all of us need to feel useful. We need a purpose. My personal belief is that people should be able to do as much as they can do, if they aren't going to hurt another person in the process. If there is some risk involved, then it should be discussed. Maybe some safeguards can be put in place or compromises made. But I'd be very, very careful about taking away hobbies or tasks that help people feel useful. They just might die because they feel no reason to live.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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My mother lives with my brother and SIL. She has dementia, heart issues and is pretty frail. She has been living with them for the past year and my SIL has found many ways to make her feel 'useful' and a needed part of the family. My 87 year old mother (who raised 5 children) has always been a homemaker and thrived in her role as Ellie encourages her to dry the dishes and fold laundry frequently. She simply loves doing these simple chores. Sometimes Ellie even 'unfolds' the laundry just to let her do it all over again if she becomes anxious or agitated, since her short term memory is gone. Doing these easy, household chores harkens back to a time in her life where she can feel useful again and a part of the family unit. Ellie also gives her very simple jigsaw puzzles to do as she used to adore doing them long ago. She enjoys these and can manage them.
Oy, this is something I've faced daily recently. My mother has spring fever at the moment and is working frantically in the yard. She is very unsteady on her feet, so I know that at any moment she is likely to fall. The yard work has given her a project, though -- a reason to live for the day. I check on her every few minutes to make sure all is okay. I make sure she has things she needs. I bring her drinks. The neighbors may think I'm awful to make this old, bent-over woman do all this work. Some of the neighbors even offer to do it for her. She turns them down, of course, because it is her project.

It would be easier for me if she didn't do it. I am stuck here at the moment because I know she will want to go outside to work. I am worried she will fall and hurt herself. But I am not going to stop her from doing this thing she is enjoying. She only has a little more time here on the earth, so let her enjoy it. I can go somewhere on rainy days.

If something is totally dangerous, I think we should stop our parents. If something is potentially dangerous, we just have to watch out for them and call 911 if needed. So no ladders for my mother, but yard work is worth the risk.
Carol wrote a great article about the value of occupation (not a job necessarily, but having meaningful activities to do). And the people who have years of training in helping people remain independent in occupation are: Occupational Therapists. There are OTs that specialize in elder care (other OTs specialize in children, injured workers or psychiatric issues). Here are links to the OT association's guides on helping elders stay safe and still engaged in independent activities. You might find something of value in these tip sheets. is a Tip sheet for activity for alz patients has Tips for low vision problems Helping a parent remain at home

OT is a service covered by Medicare; you can ask the doctor to order occupational therapy and to include a personalized home evaluation/solutions. Sometimes simple solutions are out there, we just haven't thought of them. OT s can help with that.