Although we may not think about it in these terms very often, a person’s dignity and identity are often tied to their independence. As advancing age and health conditions affect a loved one’s ability to follow through on tasks they have always mastered and enjoyed, the feeling that life is worth living can fade. One of our many responsibilities as family caregivers is to encourage activities that contribute to our loved ones’ feelings of self-worth while also prioritizing their safety.

This is admittedly a fine line to walk. How do we, as caregivers, balance independence with the obvious need for assistance and supervision? If you're in doubt, it’s generally best to err on the side of encouraging more self-reliance rather than less. Striking such a balance can be difficult, but there are some methods for reconciling both these crucial needs.

Protecting a Senior’s Dignity and Identity

As an example, for many older women, family gatherings have often been a large part of their identity. They may well remember the celebratory meals that their mothers and grandmothers prepared years ago. It is likely that they hope their family will also recall their meals on special occasions long after they are gone. But these preparations can be trying and grow increasingly difficult over the years.

To preserve an elder’s role in these gatherings and lighten their responsibilities, other family members and guests 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 festivities.

Watch to see if she struggles with any of these tasks. Should something seem too difficult, ask if she’d like some help. Listen for subtle indications during casual conversation that hint your assistance is needed. For example, she may mention in passing that using the electric mixer has become difficult due to the arthritis in her hands. That’s your cue to suggest an easier recipe or offer to do the mixing while she covers all the other steps in the original one.

As our elders face increasing physical or cognitive challenges, see if you can gradually shift gatherings and celebrations to your own home. In my family, my mother took over from my grandmother, and eventually I took over from my mother. It was all very gradual, though. My mom didn’t barge into grandma’s kitchen one year and declare she was making Thanksgiving dinner or announce one day that holidays would be taking place at her home moving forward. She let the duties shift in a tactful way that allowed her own mother to retain her dignity and continue feeling useful. I tried to do the same for my mom.

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Encouraging a Senior’s Hobbies and Self-Reliance

People have their own unique ways of cementing their legacy. Typically for older men, it involves preparing for holidays by hanging decorations, setting up the grill, or playing Mr. Fixit around the house. It’s harsh to ban an elder who enjoys fixing things from their shop or garage simply because there is some danger of injury. Yes, you may have to insist that the power saw is off-limits. But if Dad hits his thumb with a hammer, it’s not likely to cause a life-threatening injury. Compromise is key. Try not to limit activities that provide a sense of purpose unless there truly is no choice.

While it’s commendable for a caregiver to want to keep their loved one safe, it is all too easy to go overboard by demanding that they give up an activity or hobby that poses risks. The associated personal loss when purposeful activities cease usually far outweighs the increase in “safety.”

Encourage safety measures and, when necessary, remove extremely dangerous tools or equipment. But don’t take away your loved one’s pride and dignity. Work together to adapt tools and activities to be less risky. Offer to supervise or handle the more hazardous steps like climbing a ladder or moving a heavy pot off the stove.

Dementia Patients Crave Independence, Too

Dementia care poses an added layer of complexity to this situation. A loved one’s cognitive abilities (and, therefore, the degree of supervision and assistance they require) may fluctuate from day to day. However, individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can still accomplish many things.

Help your loved one when they need it. Gently remind them of the next step when they lose their place, and use humor to smooth over any mistakes or hiccups. Some levity can soften any embarrassment or confusion they may feel.

Deep down, people with dementia can sense their independence slipping away from them, which only adds to the fear and confusion they experience on a daily basis. More than anyone, seniors with cognitive difficulties must be encouraged to continue creating and participating. They need engaging activities in their lives and they need to feel that they can succeed and contribute, even if it’s something as simple as helping fold the laundry.

The Aging Process: A Rose Is Always a Rose

When speaking to groups, I often compare aging to the life cycle of a rose. It begins with a fresh new bud, which opens in full bloom and then gradually loses petals. Throughout this entire process, the 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 cherished garden.

Our elders are experiencing a similar transformation. Just because they have “lost a few petals” doesn’t make them useless. The worst thing we can do is make them feel that way. Celebrate what they can still accomplish. Give praise, but don’t go overboard. Remember, you are talking to an adult, not a child. Say, “Mom, this is delicious, as always!” Tell Dad, “It’s so nice to have that fixed!” If you need to sneak in a few steps yourself during the process or after the fact to complete the project to your standards, then do so. Just make sure you do it in a way that isn’t noticeable or insulting.

Protect your loved one’s dignity and independence. Remember that this person was once a bud full of hope. He or she has been in full bloom and contains a wealth of experience that you have yet to reach. Don’t diminish your loved one because of a few lost petals. Appreciate their transformation and ease them through it by encouraging as much independence as possible.