“All of a sudden, my parents are so old. I don’t know how to help them!”.
I have heard this statement routinely in every position I have held providing support and advocacy to Elders. This sudden awareness of aging causes anguish to adult children, as they become acutely (and often unexpectedly) aware of the aging of their parents, and feel powerless to “help”. Parents are not supposed to be fragile and needing assistance, parents are our backbone, our foundation, folks we should always be able to turn to. You know… always there. “Grandparents are old. My parents are NOT!”
The truth is, our parents age as gradually as we do, but if there is little contact from month to month or year to year, these changes can seem to come on abruptly and unexpectedly. Indeed, there are critical (“sentinel”) events that rush the aging process – a fall with a fracture, a serious illness – and the consequences can be dire, the recovery long and debilitating. For the most part, though, we each “age”, every day.
Later life aging is divided into three primary categories (with new ones cropping up regularly as our society ages stronger and is living longer). Generally speaking, they are the “young-old”, from 60-75, the “old-old”, from 75-85, and then the “frail elderly”, 85 and above. We have now added to that the “super centenarians”, those people exceeding 100 years of age. These definitions would be better applied to the progression of aging instead of attaching a year marker to them. Many seniors remain active well into their 80’s –busy, vibrant, learning, creating, contributing adults in our families and culture. They may remain “young old” far beyond their mid-70’s.
What we do witness is a progression from activity to a gradual slowing down; appetite and interests change, fatigue becomes more frequent, sleep patterns change. Senses may become impaired, and with that, enjoyment in conversation or visual stimulation decreases. Mild to moderate joint pain makes mobility and comfort difficult, and the gait may become unsteady enough to require an assistive device (cane or walker). It may become hard to attend church or social gatherings because it is difficult to see or hear. Memory may become altered, and additional assistance is required in what are termed the Activities of Daily Living (ADLs).
When an out of town child comes for a visit, what has been a steady progression for the older adult and those around them suddenly appears as a crisis for the adult child. They may feel obligated to intervene on behalf of parents who seem to be failing before their eyes. Such situations often result in chaos and upset. I have known such family to uproot seniors and move them into assisted facilities, believing they were doing what was right and safe, yet having little understanding of the culture in such facilities, or concerning themselves with the intense sense of loss one endures when they are uprooted from that which is familiar. I would suggest that unless one has a regular, on-going relationship with an aging adult, it is best NOT to jump in and make decisions for an aging family member, but instead to work on building a closer relationship with them, help them assess the need they have for assistance and figure out how to get it to them in their home. I have seen such painful moves imposed on Elders by well meaning – but disconnected – adult child who impose their fear and will on their parents. We refer to these folks as “blow in, blow up, blow out” family members. They aren’t really in a close relationship with the Elder, and so come from a place of fear and protection that is not always rightly placed.
As families endure the separation of miles and hours, it is more important than ever before that we make connections in their communities with reliable people to provide support and advocacy, and keep us in the loop, so to speak, as the needs of our aging parents change.
If you would like to be such an Eldercare Advocate, The Art of Parentcare is now accepting applications for training for September of 2016. Learn what it is to be a resource for Elders in your family, your church and your community.