Honor Your Elders' Need for Independence

Dignity and identity are often tied to independence. As aging issues eat away at our loved ones' ability to follow through on tasks that they always loved, the feeling that life is worth living can fade as well. Our task as a caregiver is to encourage activities that contribute to our loved ones' feelings of self-worth while watching for safety concerns. If, as a caregiver, you are in doubt, it's generally best to err on the side of encouraging more independence rather than less.

For older women, holiday meals have often been a large part of their identity. They may well remember the celebratory meals that their mothers or even their grandmothers prepared. Likely, they hope that their family will also remember their meals on special occasions long after they are gone.

Yet these holiday preparations can be trying. How do we, as caregivers, balance this need for our elders' independence and self-esteem with their obvious need for assistance? 

To begin with, we can offer to bring something to the celebration, or better yet, join Grandma or Mom as she does what she can to prepare for the upcoming holiday.

Watch to see if she struggles with preparations. Should something seem too difficult, ask if she'd like some help. Listen to her when she says, during casual conversations, that using her mixer has become hard on her arthritic shoulders. That's your cue to offer to bring the cake or cookies that would have required the use of the mixer.

As your elder develops more issues, either physical or cognitive, you may want to gradually shift the celebrations to your home. That's what happened in my family. My mother took over from my grandmother, and eventually I took over from my mother.

However, it was all evolutionary. My mother didn't barge into my grandmother's kitchen and say she was taking over, nor did Mom announce one day that holidays were now moving to her home. She let the duties gradually shift in a tactful way without taking away her own mother's dignity. I tried to do the same for my mom.

Men have their own ways of cementing their legacy. It could be preparing for holidays as well, or it could be playing Mr. Fixit around the house. It's cruel to ban an elder who enjoys fixing things from his or her shop, simply because there is some danger of injury. Yes, you may have to insist that the power saw needs to go, but if Dad hits his thumb with a hammer, it's not likely to cause a life threatening injury. Don't get in the way of what gives him a sense of liberty unless there truly is no choice.

While it's commendable for a caregiver to want to keep his or her elders safe, we can go overboard by demanding that they give up an activity or hobby that gives the elders a sense of accomplishment. When we do that in excess, we take away a major reason to be alive. Encourage safety and, when necessary, remove extremely dangerous tools or equipment, but don't take away your loved ones' pride and dignity in the name of safety.

What about dementia?

Even people with dementia can accomplish many things. Help your mom where she needs it. Remind her of the next step when she loses her place. Use humor when possible such as saying "Oh, I forget that step sometimes too, and then I've got a mess!" Some levity can soften the embarrassment your elder may feel.

The same can go for a workshop, sewing activities or art. People with dementia need to be encouraged to create. They need hobbies and they need to feel that they can accomplish tasks, even if it's something as simple as helping fold the laundry.

A rose is a rose

When speaking to groups, I often relate aging to the life of a rose. Starting with the fresh new bud, opening to full bloom and then gradually losing petals, a rose is still a rose. It has given joy to people who've come in contact with it, and even when there is nothing left but a dried nub, that rose existed and will continue to exist in others' memories. The rose left a legacy of some sort, whether it was part of a wedding bouquet, a Valentine's Day gift or a summer garden. We take pictures of these lovely flowers in all stages and appreciate their beauty. Certainly our elders deserve the same respect.

Simply because our loved ones have lost a few petals doesn't make them useless, and the worst thing we can do is make them feel that way. Celebrate what they can accomplish. Praise, but don't go overboard. You are talking to an adult, not a child. Say, "Mom this is delicious, as always!" Or, tell Dad, "It's so nice to have that fixed!" If you need to sneak in a few steps during the process or at a later date to make things whole, then do it, but not in a way that is noticeable. Remember dignity.

Remember independence. Remember that this person was once a bud, full of hope. He or she has been in full bloom and contains a font of experience that you have yet to reach. Don't diminish your loved one because of a few lost petals. Appreciate the whole by encouraging as much independence as possible.

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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