by Antonella De Giuli
“Always be very kind to your children, because they will one day choose your retirement home!” Phillis Diller, American actress and comedienne.
A few years ago, I visited the region of Lorraine in France. The area is full of history from the World War I. During a guided tour of a bunker, I noticed a woman who must have been around eighty years old. Alone, she followed the entire route using a scooter for the elderly. The woman actively participated in the tour. As we moved outdoors, determined, she unleashed her scooter, zigzagging through grass, and around stones, and obstacles in the ground because she was so intrigued by every detail of the bunker.
THE ONLY WAY TO LIVE LONG IS TO ALLOW YOURSELF TO BECOME OLDER
It is up to us to choose how to do it. By taking care of ourselves with love and kindness, by embracing our fears and not giving up, by cultivating old and new interests, we must carry on as long as possible with what we have available to us. When our energy starts to decrease, and moving becomes more difficult, or when routine tasks become more tiring, what then? As they age, many seniors struggle to recognize that they are no longer able to perform some of their usual activities. They feel mortified at the thought of needing help. So we must try to put ourselves in their shoes. That way we can begin to understand how difficult life has become for them.
From birth we are used to holding different roles in the family (son, brother, grandson, wife / husband, parent, etc.), at work (boss, collaborator, professional, etc.), and in life (friend, sportsman, volunteer, etc.). These roles do not represent our “being”, but they give us the perception of having a “location” that makes us feel important (from experience, knowledge, ability, competence …). The self-identification from those roles can have the consequence that, when we do not fulfill them, we feel lost, almost devoid of identity and purpose. An example of this is when a person, who, having dedicated body and soul to their work, reaches retirement they feel as if they no longer have a purpose.
Let’s try to imagine what it means, as we age, to progressively lose the roles we have had all of our life, as well as gradually seeing the dwindling of our energies. From managing a home, our family, our job, we find ourselves slowly, but inexorably, having to be managed by those who we have given birth to and raised, whom we have educated and protected, whom we have taught to live.
LET’S TRY TO IMAGINE
How could we feel at the idea that, suddenly, others are convinced that they know what is best for us? Until yesterday, we decided what was best for them! In the past, the elderly were recognized for wisdom and experience. In our culture today, it is young people, always in step with new technologies, who are considered experts. The elderly, as time passes, certainly cannot compete in physical fitness and health. So how can we show recognition of the value of these people, especially when they can no longer be self-sufficient and need help?
How can we calmly and patiently welcome the changes of a parent who once gave us the rules and who now depends on us as like a frightened child or treats us with a grumpy disposition? Maybe we could start by asking, listening, involving that person personally in the decisions that concern them. For example, help the elder to live in the present, and to enhance their time by encouraging them to relax, or encourage them to pursue a hobby for the simple pleasure of doing it.
When help at home is needed for errands, cleaning or assistance, talk about it openly, listening to the fears and anxieties, putting yourself in the shoes of those who have to give up their freedom and are afraid of losing their dignity. It might be useful to celebrate the freedom of getting rid of manual activities in favor of other more rewarding ones, perhaps creative ones, that could be done together. For example, for those who live in a condominium and fear loneliness, an activity could be the occasional babysitting for the children of the building, when the parents must be away for a short time and cannot take their children.
Sometimes it is difficult to accept that someone takes care of us or our things, out of a sense of modesty or fear of losing control of our life or because we cannot accept the idea that strangers come into contact with our most personal things. When choosing a housekeeper or a caretaker, why not ask the person concerned what characteristics they would feel most comfortable with in that person? Someone who is quick and doesn’t speak a lot so they are able to feel more relaxed? Or perhaps cheerfulness and chattiness to be able to talk when you feel alone? Or the ability to cook your favorite dishes? Or knowledge of a foreign language, to learn something new and amaze your grandchildren with the new words you’ve learned?
The woman who drove the scooter in France was not held back by the passing of the years nor by her difficulties in movement. She was driven by her curiosity and her desire to continue to know and learn. Perhaps one of the ways we could help our elderly family members is to encourage them to continue living and stay involved as long as possible.