By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on June 6, 2021
Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.
Q: My neighbor, Ann, lives alone. She’s elderly. I’m not exactly sure of her age but my guess is she’s pushing 90. Last year her husband died and then Covid-19 struck just weeks later. I reached out this past March to see if I could help her with anything. Ann was appreciative and asked me to pick up groceries for her. After a couple of months I started mowing her lawn, and I continue to do both on a weekly basis.
Ann seems lonely. She invites me in and wants to talk. She doesn’t complain, but I can see that she struggles. Her house is dirty and messy. I don’t think Ann showers regularly and she’s rail thin. Twice I’ve taken her to doctor appointments when her once a week caretaker didn’t show up. Ann’s son, who lives within an hour drive, doesn’t visit, call or seem to be involved in her life in any way. I think that Ann could be living with more dignity, as relying on me, a neighbour, to take care of all of this is not a good plan.
After spending time with Ann I find myself worrying that the struggles I observe in Ann’s increasing dependencies and needs will be my future. What can I do to combat the harshness doled out by Mother Time? – Naomi
A: Naomi, you have done a lot to help another human being live with less solitude and more dignity. Being elderly and living alone has proven to be lonely and difficult for your neighbour, and your concern has helped reduce the challenges that she faces. It is easy for you to see how the struggles you observe in Ann could occur to you in your senior years.
Making plans for the realities of what may happen in your old age will increase the likelihood of having a easier existence than Ann. Such planning has to take into consideration the vast number of changes in the ageing body, including a decline in one’s intellect, motor function, memory and hearing, all which provide challenges in managing day-to-day activities.
For instance, the human brain shrinks with age, making it more difficult to learn and remember. Oftentimes an elderly person’s long-term memory is intact yet their short-term memory becomes unreliable, affecting their ability to stay on task, be organised and make plans. Accompanying hearing loss can compound the difficulty of understanding what has been said to them and general communication with others.
Adding on to the cognitive changes, our motor function is reduced in old age. Exercise can help ameliorate some of the slowing of response, and even the balance and gait difficulties that put older adults at risk of sustaining injury from falls.
Sometimes family members notice the cognitive and motor function changes, become fearful of their elderly parents’ deteriorating driving skills and will request that their aged parents quit driving. Being able to drive carries the same symbol of freedom, choice and independence as it does for the teenager when he receives his first driver’s license. Yet many elderly do not recognise a slowing of response time and coordination and resist readily relinquishing their car keys. I know of one family that was concerned when they learned their 88-year-old mother narrowly missed sideswiping a pedestrian in a parking lot. Pleas for their mother to quit driving were countered with denial and hostility. Finally, in desperation, one daughter forged a fake letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles informing the elderly woman that she was no longer eligible to drive.
It’s not just being able to drive a vehicle that is impacted by a seniors’ impaired mobility. Not being able to easily get out and about can create feelings of isolation and loneliness, much as you are seeing in Ann. Whereas an elderly person may be residing in the same community in which they lived for years while raising a family, events may happen over the passage of time that make it difficult to connect with others. Neighbourhoods change and people with whom the elderly person socialised may have moved away to nearby assisted living facilities or near their grown children. Some may have died. Not being able to drive, living on a fixed income with increasing medical and personal care costs, and not having the physical ability to take public transportation all contribute to an increased sense of isolation. It also makes it more challenging for the elderly to access community services, such as food, medical care and entertainment, putting them at increased medical, physical and emotional risk.
Rather than begrudging Mother Time, I encourage you to start embracing the aging process by planning for your senior years. Today is a great day to start.
You can do this by creating habits that will mitigate the challenges I’ve discussed. This includes building relationships with others and incorporating exercise and learning into your daily routine.
Make a commitment to develop a good social network. You’ll need these people in so many ways. Getting involved socially with others can be a source of emotional support and encouragement, and provide physiological benefits including reduced stress and blood pressure. Family can be absolutely wonderful, but just because you have family around doesn’t mean they will be emotionally available for you in the way that you wish. For instance, you may find you have more in common with friends. Or sometimes there is an unhealthy history between family members that continues to sting and disappoint.
Choose a lifestyle of being physically active. Not only is exercise good for muscle tone and other physical benefits such as control of some medical ailments, it also helps promote a positive mental health by combating anxiety and depression.
And finally, I encourage you to be curious! Creating the habit of being curious about life and doing what you can to learn about different subjects that interest you will help reduce cognitive decline in old age. There are endless ways to learn, ranging from museums, webinars, lectures and reading to traveling.
Old age creeps up on us, and as you’ve already noticed, it increases our vulnerability. The secret to successful aging is to anticipate the areas that place you at risk and in turn, take appropriate action. By taking care of yourself now and planning for your future you can avoid fitting into the stereotype of equating old age with being frail. It will enable you to continue living with fewer struggles and more the way you envision your life should be.
Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.
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