Due to the enormous number of baby boomers who are reaching retirement, aging is frequently in the news. Sadly, the coverage of this topic is consistently negative, and aging is portrayed as a “problem” that needs to be solved. However, what we do not see on the news is how many smart, active and vibrant seniors are living their own lives. Many of these older individuals would appreciate it if people would stop treating them as if they are dispensable and disposable simply because they have gray hair or use a hearing aid.
I am aware that many people under age 65 need assistance from their adult children or other sources because of health problems. That being said, having arthritis or heart issues, for example, doesn’t make a person cognitively impaired. Therefore, when we offer to help in these situations, the elders’ opinions and wishes must be taken into consideration.
I know only too well that watching our parents get older is difficult. Ideally, they were once our anchors. No matter how difficult life became, there was comfort in knowing that our parents were around, even if they were half way across the country.
Now, when we see their joints needing replacement, their skin wrinkling, perhaps even their memory recall slowing, we cringe. Whether or not we wish to admit it, we are afraid. We know that our parents are not immortal. One day we will be without them.
Acknowledging our parents’ vulnerability is painful for us, and we want to protect them. This is a noble aspiration, but we need to move carefully and respectfully, always remembering that living life well often involves taking a few risks.
People of all ages treasure their independence.
The same people who enjoy an independent life and are capable of living one are often the people who long ago put a realistic plan in place. They drafted the appropriate powers of attorney and created wills because they realize, perhaps more than their adult children do, that bad things happen. Anyone at any age can be rendered incapable of making their own decisions due to an accident or a health emergency. These elders take care of this important legal work because they are realists. Once that is done, they can get on with the business of living, and do so more confidently.
Many people age 65 and beyond are just getting to where they have the freedom to travel. Yes, they may need to make adjustments for some health or mobility issues, but they are not mentally or physically incapable of enjoying life on their own terms. This may be what they have waited for throughout all of their working years. Instead of travel, they may plan to build furniture, create the garden of their dreams or volunteer for a beloved organization, and they have earned the ability to act on these desires.
Don’t let ageism be your guide.
So when do you heed the repeated warnings and evaluate your aging parents’ living conditions, their decision making abilities and their memory? It’s not always straightforward, and the pressure to be vigilant is huge.
The challenge is to avoid making blanket judgements. Treat your parents as individuals and give them the benefit of the doubt if they forget a name on occasion. Younger people forget things, too. Begin by remembering that you are still your parents’ child. They are—and always will be—your parents, no matter what intimate care you will need to provide them in the future.
Aging and dignity are not mutually exclusive.
Aging should not strip people of their dignity. When dignity and rights are removed, people are rendered less than adult. What is the point of getting up in the morning if you are unable to make any choices of your own?
Anxiety over our elders' safety can turn adult children into dictators. That often results in what adult children see as stubborn or reactive behavior on the side of the elder. I encourage adult children to be aware of the needs of their aging parents. Offer to help with some heavy duty work. Certainly we need to be available during any health challenge such as surgery. However, we also need to watch our own natural tendency to take charge and to say that we know best simply because we are afraid for their health or safety.
Many elders would much rather continue doing what they love now for as long as possible than have a guarantee of staying alive until they are 100. They don’t want to be labeled as fragile and protected to the point that, instead of living their lives, they will simply be existing.
When I wrote my book “Minding Our Elders,” I titled it with both meanings of that phrase in mind. To mind our elders means to take care of them when needed, but it also may mean to back off with respect when that is what they want. These loved ones are still our elders. Caring with love can sometimes mean maintaining a respectful distance when it comes to how they live their lives even if we, as adult children, don’t always approve. It may mean biting our tongues while our parents enjoy taking a few risks.