The impact of aging frequently makes the news. Sadly, the coverage is consistently negative, and all facets of this topic are portrayed as “problems” that must be solved. However, what we do not see on the news with much regularity is how many vibrant seniors are living their lives on their own terms. Many of these older individuals express the desire for society to stop treating them as if they are useless and dispensable simply because they are aging.
Despite rapid growth in the number of Americans ages 65 and older, age-based stereotypes and discrimination still endure. Rather than tackling ageism as a whole, I wish to address how preconceived notions and fears influence family caregiving—especially as it pertains to adult children who are caring for their aging parents.
Older Care Recipients Are Treated Differently
Many people under age 65 need assistance from their relatives or other sources due to health problems and/or disabilities. In these instances, help is provided in a manner that emphasizes autonomy and independent living. But when it comes to older adults, something is just inherently different about the way we consider their need for support.
Consciously or not, family caregivers often step in to help their elders without fully understanding or appreciating their goals and preferences. We take charge of the situation and frequently wind up taking over. However, most age-related health conditions like arthritis or heart disease don’t automatically render an older adult incapable of making their own care decisions. Therefore, when we offer to help in these situations, our care recipients’ opinions and wishes must guide our efforts.
Perhaps this age-based difference in caregiving approaches exists because there is an unspoken assumption or hope that younger individuals still have so much to contribute, so much life left to live. We do not see them as frail or facing a losing battle against time.
When our parents are the ones getting older and needing more help, it complicates the dynamic further. Ideally, they were once our anchors. No matter how difficult life became, there was comfort in knowing that Mom and Dad were around, even if they lived halfway across the country.
Now, when we see their joints needing replacing, 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 from the indignities of old age for as long as possible. This is a noble aspiration, but we need to move carefully and respectfully, always remembering that a life worth living often involves taking a few risks. If Mom and/or Dad are still cognitively sound, then it is up to them to decide which risks they’re willing to take.
Infusing Elder Care With Dignity
So when do you heed the repeated warnings and evaluate your aging parents’ living conditions, their decision making abilities and their memory? When it is time to step in, how do you accomplish this without depriving them of the right to guide their own lives? The answers are not always straightforward, and the pressure to be vigilant is huge.
The best thing you can do is avoid making blanket judgements. Treat your parents as capable individuals and give them the benefit of the doubt if they forget a name on occasion. Younger people forget things, too. Remind yourself that you are still their child. They are—and always will be—your parents, no matter what personal care you will need to provide for them now or in the future.
Anxiety over our elders’ safety can turn adult children into dictators—deciding where they live, what they can and can’t do, and how they get around. The rationale for this overbearing behavior, regardless of how sound or well-meaning it is, doesn’t matter. The overwhelming desire to protect often results in what adult children see as stubborn or reactive behavior from the elder. Could you blame them?
I encourage adult children to focus on their aging parents’ concrete needs rather than perceived needs. It’s true that few elders clearly communicate what they need assistance with and when. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a watchful eye for changes in their physical and mental health. However, we also need to watch our own natural tendency to take charge and say that we know best simply because we are afraid for their health or safety. We want to protect them, yes, but we must also be aware of our deep desire to protect ourselves from the loss we know is looming.
Aging should not strip people of their dignity. When dignity and rights are removed, people are rendered less than. What is the point of getting up in the morning if you are unable to make any choices of your own?
Many elders would much rather continue doing what they love now for as long as possible than play it safe and 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 they resign themselves to simply existing instead of truly living.
When I wrote my book, Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories, 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 may also mean backing off when that is what they want. Caregiving sometimes takes the form of maintaining a respectful distance when it comes to how our parents live their lives even if we, as adult children, don’t always approve. It may mean biting our tongues while they enjoy taking a few risks.
If we help with anything, it should be ensuring our elders retain their dignity. Taking over their care and their lives does nothing to preserve their independence. Instead, it ensures a premature loss of autonomy and purpose. Without these rights, quality of life declines and we fail in our original mission to ensure their well-being.