Elder Parents and Dignity
“My daddy always told me, ‘Once a man, twice a boy,’ and I guess he was right. Now I’m wearing diapers like a baby.” His voice broke on the last words and it was all I could do not to cry with him. Watching this man slowly becoming weaker, becoming more hunched over, his food being pureed because he had no teeth and couldn’t afford dentures, and now incontinence taking the last of his dignity, was painful. He went from walking with a cane to a wheelchair before finally becoming bedridden at the end.
To most people he was a cantankerous old man. I had originally met him when I was seeing his wife, trying to get her blood pressure under control and teach her about her medications. She was as sweet and pleasant as he was ornery and hardheaded. He did not take to me at first, in fact it took several weeks before one day he asked me, “Aren’t you gonna check my blood pressure too?” I was shocked since usually he was more of the, “When you leaving?” kinda fella. Once he decided he liked me though, that was it. No other nurse could come out.
I have no idea why he decided to trust me but nearly every home care nurse has a patient that will trust only them. Perhaps it is because this nurse is the first person to actually see them as an intelligent adult in quite some time. For our older adults this is a refreshing change of pace.
Too often our elderly are treated as if they are simple-minded and ignorant. I have had more than one person ask me a question about my mom when she was sitting right there, as if she isn’t intelligent enough to understand the question. I always make it a point to turn to her and let her answer for herself.
Our society tends to shove older people aside and ignore them at the first sign of declining health. The prevailing attitude is they are behind the times, stuck in the past and of no use to society any more. Nothing could be further from the truth and I suspect all us self-absorbed baby boomers are about to get a reality check as we rapidly enter the senior population ourselves.
The truth is that most seniors today are healthy and active late into life. They are still learning and contributing to the world around them, if only the world would notice. Our current elders who are 70 and older lived through WWII and put a man on the moon. They gave us rock and roll, color television, microwave ovens and the first computers, among many other contributions too numerous to name.
The very least we can do is treat them with the dignity that aging is so cruelly trying to take from them. You never want to see your loved one crying because they feel like they are a child or baby.
They have some interesting stories to tell and a lot of knowledge. Listen to them even if you’ve heard them before. Ask their opinion and advice.
If you notice they forgot something do not jump to the immediate conclusion that they are getting senile. You ever walk into a room and forget what you went in there for? Or run into someone and completely forget the their name? I thought so. If you really think there is a problem, discuss it with them and have it checked out. In the elderly, something as simple as an infection can lead to confusion.
Let them make their own decisions if they are mentally competent. If you think they are making the wrong decision, explain to them why you think so but remember it is their decision, not yours. Respect their choices even if you do not agree with them.
If they have a mental impairment encourage them to make choices such as what they will wear that day or what they will eat. Make sure you keep the alternatives to two or three, such as, “Do you want apple juice or orange juice?”
Maintain their privacy especially if they need assistance with personal care. No one wants their naked body exposed for the whole world to see or to have their incontinence problems discussed with others.
If they have incontinence problems use the term briefs, not diapers. If they must have clothing protectors while eating, do not call the bibs. And if you use a room monitor, do not call it a baby monitor.
Don’t talk down to them as if they are children, they are adults and deserved to be treated as such.
Caregivers often complain about their loved ones behavior, accusing them of doing it on purpose. Understand that much of their annoying behavior may be a result of them trying to exert some control over their own lives. Control you have likely taken from them.
Sure, they move slower now, but these are the same people who held your hand and patiently walked beside you when you were small. The same people who taught you manners, how to use utensils and brush your teeth. Be patient with them, allow them the extra time they need to complete tasks. You probably need to slow down a bit your self.
One more thing to think about. You are demonstrating to the next generation how you want to be treated when you get older.