A person’s dignity and identity are often tied to their independence. As advancing age and health conditions diminish our loved one’s ability to follow through on tasks they have always enjoyed, the feeling that life is worth living can fade. Our responsibility as caregivers is to encourage activities that contribute to their feelings of self-worth while also balancing our concern for their safety.

How do we, as caregivers, balance our elders’ independence and self-esteem with their obvious need for assistance and supervision? If you are in doubt, it’s generally best to err on the side of encouraging more independence rather than less. Achieving this balance can be difficult, but there are some methods for reconciling both of 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. It is likely that they hope their family will also remember 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 holiday.

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 signal your assistance is needed. For example, she may mention in passing that using her mixer has become difficult due to her arthritis. That's your cue to suggest an easier recipe or offer to do the mixing while she covers all the other steps in the traditional one.

As our elders face increasing physical or cognitive challenges, 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 evolutionary, though. My mother didn’t barge into my grandma’s kitchen one year and say she was making Thanksgiving dinner, and Mom didn’t just announce one day that holidays would be taking place at her home. She let the duties gradually 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 Independence

People have their own unique ways of cementing their legacy. Typically for older men, it involves preparing for holidays by hanging decorations or 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 must go, 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 yield a sense of liberty unless there truly is no choice.

While it’s commendable for a caregiver to want to keep their loved one safe, it is tempting 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 riskier steps like climbing the ladder or using power tools.

What About Dementia?

Elders with 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.

People with dementia need to be encouraged to create and participate. They need engaging activities in their lives and they need to feel that they can accomplish tasks, 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 the 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 accomplish. Give praise, but don’t go overboard. 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, then do so. Just make sure you do it in a way that isn’t noticeable or insulting.

Protect their 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 font of experience that you have yet to reach. Don’t diminish your loved one because of a few lost petals. Appreciate their transformation by encouraging as much independence as possible.