Treating Elderly with Dignity
by Isabel Tom
Because they deserve respect, we need to be all the more cautious in the way we treat our older friends and recognize some of the ways we unintentionally harm their well-being. In her book, Cruising through Caregiving, Jennifer FitzPatrick shares that sometimes we treat an aging parent like a child because it makes things easier or more efficient for us. “The caregiver thinks, It takes my older loved one a long time to walk to the mailbox, so I’ll just go ahead and mail her letters for her.”
FitzPatrick says that while this thinking can be rational, efficient, and even considerate, in the long run, it is a grave mistake and can make life harder for both us as caregivers and our aging loved one. If we do too much for them, we may quicken their decline. Our helping can be harmful at times. Thus, how we help Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, and Dad requires wisdom.
If we truly want to position our grandparents or aging parents to thrive in old age, then our goal should be to preserve their independence as long as possible. When we start doing things for our loved ones simply because it is more efficient, we rob the older adult of their independence prematurely; we prevent them from exercising their physical and mental abilities. As the phrase goes, “use it or lose it.”
Thus, even if it takes longer for Grandma or Mom to cook or it requires more time for them to complete a task, let them be. Let the older adult address a letter, wash their laundry, or even go to the bathroom on his or her own. Don’t complete the task for them if at all possible, don’t wheel them over when they can walk. Do show up and resolve to support them if needed. You want to provide support that allows them to do things themselves for as long as possible.
When we try to preserve an elder’s independence, we are doing them a great service. But what happens when grandparents or older parents start getting wobbly or shaky? Do we put them at safety risk for the sake of independence? Early in my career, I took a course at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Erickson School of Aging. The course was taught by Loren Shook, the CEO of Silverado Senior Living. In this course, Shook taught a concept first introduced by Robert Perske called “the dignity of risk” that revolutionized my perspective of quality senior care. It’s something every person needs to know.
The dignity of risk is all about treating people like humans and giving them maximum independence. If you’ve ever cared for someone whose health is declining, you might have seen them do something unsafe or harmful to their health. Maybe they wobbled as they walked, but decided not to use their walker. Or maybe they needed exercise but refused. On the sidelines, we may nag and say things like, “You need to use your walker, Mom! You’re going to fall!” Five minutes later, we repeat the same frustration, “Don’t forget to use your walker, Mom!” When we direct their actions, we can dampen conversation. Even worse, we damage our relationship with the older adult. When someone feels like you’re running their life, they will feel like you are ruining it too. What we need to recognize is how important it is to preserve our elder’s dignity. Sometimes we prioritize safety over dignity and unintentionally do our elders harm.
At the heart of the dignity of risk is the idea that every human being should be able to make his or her own decisions and have the freedom to fail. Consider your own life and the choices you make. You may eat potato chips even though you know they’re bad for you. You stay out in the sun longer, though you know you could get sunburn. You may walk on loose rocks across a creek, even though you possibly might fall. You take risks, and as humans, our ability to make our own choices preserves our dignity.
As someone ages, if they are stripped from making their own decisions, this can lead to anger, resentment, and eventually apathy regarding one’s own self. Because no longer does the older individual need to make decisions; others are making those decisions for them. Could this explain why in today’s society so many older adults remain dull and unengaged?
Excerpted from The Value of Wrinkles: A Young Perspective on How Loving the Old Will Change Your Life (Moody Publishers, February 2020) by Isabel Tom.
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