Isolation can be a real challenge for older people, who may live alone or have limited opportunities for social interaction. While we might feel a little awkward around elders within our community, we probably have more in common than we imagine. We all feel good when someone takes the time to see us in our day-to-day lives, and the older people around us are often a font of wisdom, experience, and humour. On the other hand, we all feel unhappy when we feel ignored, so don’t avoid your seniors. Take the time to share a friendly good morning and ask how they are.
Whether we are interacting with older people within our community or navigating the challenges of later life with a family member or loved one, it is very easy to slide into a foot in mouth moment or say things that are hurtful without realising what we have done. With ageing comes wisdom, which can offer great liberation as we embrace a better sense of self and don’t sweat the small things so much! But ageing can also bring the anxiety that goes with adjusting to changes in our physical and mental capability, and the re-framing of how we define our sense of independent self. Unfortunately, stereotypes prevail too often when we think of the older people around us, but with a little self-awareness we can avoid thoughtless speech and treat our elders with the dignity and compassion that we all deserve as individuals. Here we explore some things that are important to avoid saying, after all, we can all benefit from a more empathetic approach in life!
As our loved ones age, they might find that learning new things becomes a slower process, and they have to wrap their heads around tasks and concepts in smaller chunks. While it might take a little more patience, the speed with which they process does not necessarily mean they are incapable of comprehending complex ideas or forming different feelings and approaches. When we speak to elders we must try not to be dismissive if we don’t reach the same page right away. We can be more constructive by talking through what we are trying to achieve in more depth, breaking it down into smaller, easier to digest pieces, staying calm and non-confrontational, and knowing that if we don’t reach the same conclusion, in the end, that’s really not the end of the world.
“You are always complaining!”
When we are caring for, or spending a lot of time with someone who is experiencing a physical decline, we may struggle with how often they talk about their ill health. We can take an empathetic perspective and help the ones we love by remembering that they may very well need to vent about what they are feeling, whilst aware that spending too much time focused on negativity can be detrimental to their health. Whenever your loved one talks about the pain or discomfort they are experiencing, take the time to acknowledge and listen to what they are saying, even if you have heard it before. Once they have let off a little steam change the subject to something positive like discussing other family members, asking questions about their past or discussing future plans or activities. Try to help them find positive things to set their sights on. We all need some help with that once in a while!
“Just let me do it.”
It can be easy to adopt a condescending tone with our elders when they are struggling with daily tasks. We might feel tempted to tell them to “hurry up” or take over a task without asking, but in making them feel infantilised we are serving up a real kicker for their self-esteem. Instead try offering to help in a respectful way, while sharing any concerns you have or offering a reason why you might help. You could say something like; “I could fill out that online form for you if you like. I’ve filled out similar forms before, and I know you would do the same for me too.” Another example could be: “would you like help with those groceries? I’ve got lots of time to spare and we could do it together.”
When helping our parents, we can always remind them that we are following their example!
“If you keep forgetting things I will have to put you in a home.”
When we realise our ageing loved ones are approaching difficult milestones such as needing help in the home, stopping driving or going into residential care, it can be terribly difficult to broach and address these issues without conflict. As an older person comes to terms with reductions in their independence, any threatening language can make them feel terribly anxious and more prone to be defensive rather than rational. Always begin a conversation of this type by talking about your concerns, such as “I am worried that you may have a car accident, and it would be awful if you or somebody else were hurt, but there are fantastic options for getting about these days. It’s not as difficult as you imagine.” or “I am really concerned that if you have a fall when you are alone there will be nobody here to help you. Perhaps it would be handy to have someone around who could help you with little tasks.” However, these conversations progress, try to maintain the sense that your loved one is part of the process, and if they are reluctant to follow your advice, arrange together to consult with their doctor who will be able to offer assurance and advice from a professional and experienced standpoint.
“You can’t do that!”
While older adults certainly don’t want to be treated in a condescending way, they are also usually none too keen on the stereotype that when we age we should be quiet and boring! One of the huge benefits of getting older is that we have the wisdom to see what really matters and this often means feeling less inhibited to be creative and playful. You might have a valid reason to worry, of course. If your elderly parent wants to take up bungee jumping, for example, you probably have some cause for concern!
However rather than dismissing the urge to do something over-ambitious, discuss your worries, explore the alternatives, and agree that they should talk it through with their doctor first. But if your elderly loved one wants to take up a new activity or hobby, by all means, encourage them. Being creative and maintaining an active social life are wonderful tools for increased happiness and well-being.
Life is for living at any age, and there is great potential for all of us to find great fulfilment in our senior years.