Our experiences with our aging parents really changed how we talk about aging. Here’s how we talk about aging now (and don’t) and why we made big changes:
1. We cut out how we talk about aging negatively.
After Mom had surgery, she didn’t seem like herself. And, this was not just during the recovery period, but months later. We’d visit and Mom would still be in her nightgown. She was leaving laundry to pile up and dishes in the sink. This was a woman who was meticulous about her home and appearance. When we chatted, she seemed listless and disinterested. Eventually, we took her to the doctor and discovered she was depressed. Many factors may have been at play. However, Mom’s feelings of helplessness and worthlessness around getting older became clear in our conversations.
We realized that how we talk about aging, even little comments and jokes, is often ageist. So much of how we talk about aging in our society is how to avoid it or not seem old. There’s always a pill or cream for not looking or feeling “old”. We focus a lot on productivity as defined by work and output, so many people doubt their self-worth after their children grow up and they retire. All this talk contributed to Mom equating getting old (exemplified by the surgery) with being useless and dependent. Our family decided we needed to stop all the negative talk about aging.
2. We stopped making assumptions of what it means to be a certain age.
Mom and Dad both started limiting some of their activities. When we discussed why, they believed they were “too old” for this or that. For example, Dad decided to give up his leadership position on a non-profit board. The community was so upset and worried about the huge gap in leadership and knowledge. No one had suggested he do it and he didn't want to, but he'd internalized beliefs about aging.
Our family came to understand that our comments about someone being too old to do something didn’t make any sense. Yes, there are times when an individual may need to stop (or modify) an activity. But. it’s not about age alone. In any given cohort, people have a wide variety of experiences and abilities. Some 80-year-olds have stellar hand-eye coordination and no issues driving, while some 70-year-olds shouldn’t drive. Now, if we have some concern about Mom or Dad, we talk about it from the perspective of concrete observations. We would never say “we think you should stop driving because you’re 80”.
3. Our family stopped discussing aging issues in absolutes.
We actually learned this a long time ago from a cousin. His Dad made him swear before he died that he would “never let Mom go to a care facility”. Later, when Mom developed dementia everyone worked hard to keep her at home. Unfortunately, she was getting worse and started wandering. She was up all night and highly agitated. His Mom required round-the-clock care at home. They were able to troubleshoot the issues and get her the care she needed. However, he really regretted his absolute promise. He saw that Mom might have benefitted from a care facility, and it certainly would have reduced family strain. Along with the stress, they worried about money. No one would have anticipated the many years of constant care Mom would need when they made that promise.
The EasyLiving team recommends not talking in absolutes, ultimatums, and specifics about the future. A much better promise is to say “I will always do my best to care for you and make sure you get what you need.” We’ve also heard elders saying they won’t accept anyone coming into their home or will give up something “over my dead body”. Sometimes they’ll even say they’d prefer to kill themselves if they get to a certain point. But, these feelings often change when we are in the situation. It only makes it harder to face challenges when we use this language. If you need help discussing aging or care concerns (or just have questions), set up a consultation with one of our care managers.
4. We stopped speaking to and about elders like children.
This really struck us when we heard the doctor’s assistant calling Mom “sweetie” and “honey”. But, even worse was when the doctor himself ignored Mom and directed everything to us. Another time when shopping with Dad someone called him “cute”. We saw a clear pattern of dismissing elders.
And, then we realized we had done it too. As we were trying to talk to our parents about some concerns and possible changes, we kept fighting. They continually resisted our suggestions or undid things we put into place.
Finally, we sat down to meet with a care manager. It was only then that we realized we’d been approaching things all wrong. Our words had made our parents feel like we didn’t think they could make decisions anymore. We hadn’t given them space to express their feelings or process things. Just like when someone obviously spoke to them in a patronizing way, our approach had dismissed the intelligent, experienced people they are.
5. Our language about forgetfulness and dementia was leading to more misunderstanding.
First of all, when our aunt developed Alzheimer’s disease we stopped making jokes about “senior moments”. We learned a lot about the disease and assumptions we’d been making. Most of us thought memory loss was a part of aging. Now we know that while some changes in memory and thinking do happen with age, true memory loss is not normal. We feel terms like “senior moment” get people confused and maybe keep them from seeking evaluations when there’s a potential problem.
Similarly, as our aunt got worse, we’d all say “it’s not Alzheimer’s, maybe just a little dementia”. When we started learning more, we realized this didn’t make sense. Alzheimer’s had such a stigma in our minds that we didn’t want to consider that’s what it could be. However, dementia is not a diagnosis. It’s just a catch-all term for Alzheimer’s and other similar diseases. We talked to many others who faced similar confusion. So, we made a concerted effort to use proper terminology and not talk in euphemisms about serious issues.
Changing how we talk about aging changes how we see aging. Perception affects our experiences. We now understand this is why how we talk about aging is so important. Working with an EasyLiving care manager helped our family have loving, honest conversations. She guided us through some conflicts and kept us from being overwhelmed or discouraged. The process empowered our parents and relieved a lot of stress on us.
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