What to Expect When You Grow Old
Mom and Her Faithful Companion
What You Don't Expect to Feel When You are Old
When you are young or middle-aged, you cannot imagine the way your personality and lifestyle may change when you become elderly. Part of aging is physical, and that part most of us are resigned to and just hope we won't ever become dependent enough to have to leave our homes.
What you may not expect unless you've been very involved in elder care or are very close to aging friends or relatives, are the changes in the way you may feel about yourself and your life. They've always said you are only as old as you feel, and we never really expect to feel old, even when we are old. And in one way, that's true. We can still hold on to the wonder and optimism we have as children or young adults. But we also begin to recognize that some things we have always controlled may be moving beyond our control. One of these things is how people we don't know look at us. Another is to maintain long held friendships as old friends die off before us. We also may have unexpected health and mental health issues, only some of which are under our control.
Some people are mentally and physically healthy enough in old age to be able to stay independent and keep control of their finances and stay in their homes. But even they may deal with the emotional issues they did not expect. In this hub we will look at some of those.
Respect vs Invisibility
In some cultures, the elderly are respected for their life experience and greater wisdom they've acquired over the years. The United States does not appear to revere its elder citizens this way, though. They are often considered foolish, incapable, irritating, demented, and insignificant. It's often thought they have all the time in the world. I remember one morning I took my mother to her cardiologist for a 9 am appointment. She was in her eighties. We sat and sat as everyone else in that waiting room, even those who had arrived much later than Mom, were called to see the doctor. It was as though Mom was invisible. Finally, about 11, I couldn't take it anymore. I finally asked the receptionist what was taking so long. Mom had just been overlooked as the younger, working, more important people had gone ahead of her. They called her a few minutes later.
Pat Moore, who wrote Disguised: A True Story, an industrial designer for products for the elderly, decided to see what it was like to be elderly, in order to design better products. As a businesswoman, she was used to being important and respected. With the help of a make-up artist, she disguised herself as a much older woman and continued to do that for three years. What shocked her most during this time was the difference in how she was treated because of her perceived age. She was often ignored, and people tried to take advantage of her, assuming her to be gullible. Instead of being respected, she was often overlooked. When people explained things to her, they often talked down to her, as though she would not understand what they might say to a younger person. Her gray hair and frail appearance suddenly made her insignificant to many people who would have treated her undisguised 26-year-old self differently. To really understand what some of our elderly are faced with daily, I highly recommend this book.
The Vulnerability of Old Age
As you anticipate growing old, what do you most fear?
As Pat Moore found out after being mugged, the elderly are often targets of criminals because they look like easy targets who can't fight back. This makes many in their last three decades hesitant to go out alone after dark. Even I, almost 70, am beginning to feel a bit of this vulnerability.
Some elderly citizens are also developing health issues that limit what they can do physically. Arthritis, which is very common as people age, makes it harder to open jars, pop up the tops of canned goods, and use some tools. It can also become hard to turn door knobs and faucets. These are all activities these people once took for granted, and it's frustrating to discover, especially if you live alone, that you can't do them anymore. One problem that troubles many as they age is no longer being able to cut their own toenails. These changes in abilities can make people feel less capable and more dependent upon others for help. If they are fortunate, they have children who will be there for them, or they can afford to hire help.
For some, eyesight begins to dim and hearing fades, or both, depending on age. This can make it harder to drive and harder to communicate with people, and it increases a sense of isolation and dependence if one has to stop driving completely -- especially if there is no good public transportation available. It also increases the perception that one is no longer of use to anyone. Society often makes people who can no longer "contribute" to society by volunteering or working for pay, feel unimportant. This attitude then might begin to rub off on the person himself, thus making him feel useless.
Sometimes even mobility within one's own home decreases. When one has to use a walker or wheelchair, independent living becomes harder and harder, and adult children may put pressure on a parent living alone to move in with them or to move to an assisted living facility. This can be a very hard blow -- to give up a home and the privacy and autonomy you've enjoyed -- to move in with others who will help take care of you. Giving up independence is very difficult if you've had it for your entire adult life. Hand in hand with this may come the pressure to give a relative or trustee complete power by letting them handle even your finances.
One of the biggest challenges in aging are the changes in one's social life. For many, retirement offered the opportunity to socialize more with friends, play golf, travel, volunteer in the community, and spend quality time with grandchildren. I know how active my mom was in her sixties, the age I am now. She was president of two organizations, and active in others. Then, when she was 70, she lost my dad. Although she remained active, instant and unexpected widowhood was a great blow. She'd lost half of herself. She was no longer part of a couple that socialized with other couples. She was a widow who socialized in organizations and with other widows and with her children, one of whom was me, living 250 miles away.
She received another blow at 76 during a family crisis. She needed to move my then five-year-old nephew in with her for almost a year while his parents were away, and we took his 13-year-old brother. In one way, this gave her added purpose, but it was also very difficult to parent a disturbed five-year-old for a year with little help. Being a parent at 76 is hard enough, but single parenting when all your friends are in their sixties and seventies is even harder. That year taught us Mom should be closer to me, in case such a thing were to happen again. I didn't have room for two children where I lived, but I would have been able to help out on weekends and give her a break. So Mom moved here. As it turned out, the children did not need to live with us again, but Mom was still here, and I was at first the only person she knew in this community.
Many older folks find themselves in this predicament, having to move closer to or even in with their children when they are in their seventies. That means they have left their social contacts behind -- their normal activities and close friends. It also means they are more dependent on their children socially, but their children are often still working or have children at home, and they don't have all the time to spend with a parent that the parent would like. Thus, the parent feels isolated. Mom made a few friends at church and volunteered at the library for a few years, but then she had to drop choir and Bible study because they met at night and she couldn't drive at night anymore. She was dependent on rides to get to those activities.
One thing Mom really looked forward to were semi-annual trips to visit her sister and son and friends in the city she had moved from. A couple of times a group of her bridge friends from back home came to see her. But, sadly, one by one they died, and finally even her sister died. She had basically lost everyone she loved except her children and grandchildren. This is something almost every elderly person faces if she survives to the late eighties or into the nineties and beyond. She no longer has close friends with a shared history.
This same thing happened to my Cousin Edna ( my father's mother's first cousin), who also lived many years by herself at the end of her life. Her mother died when she was only 16, and before she died made Edna promise to take care of her father. Because of this promise, she never married, and thus had no children. She lived with a college roommate most of her life, and they taught school. She cared for her father in their home and later her brother as well. Though she never left her community, as my mom did, all her close friends, including her roommate, eventually died off, and she had only my dad and us, to help her at the close of her life. Like many, she "didn't want to be a burden" on her remaining loved ones. She had carried "burdens" most of her life. Unlike many, she was financially able to move into a secure senior condo when it no longer made sense for her to keep her large family home. When she could no longer be independent after her health deteriorated, she moved to assisted living until her life's end. In her last years, she could no longer read, since she had macular degeneration, and even with hearing aids she could not always hear everything. I often wonder what her life would have been like if she had not died three years before my dad did, since my dad visited her regularly and toward the end ran errands for her, carrying documents to her lawyers and banks, etc. Till the end she was mentally strong and managed to control her own finances and legal documents. She was a woman with great faith in God, and as she had less and less human companionship, she relied more on her relationship to him.
Although Mom's volunteer work was in the daytime, by the time my mom was 85, she had to drop that, too, because her memory was starting to go. She couldn't remember to show up at the right time -- even for her appointments with the hairdresser. We decided to see if a senior residence might be the answer, but we made it a 90-day trial. We thought it might improve her social life to have others around, and she wouldn't have to eat alone during the day. Unfortunately, she was having a lot of problems with her hearing aids then, and so she couldn't hear well enough to communicate with potential friends. She was afraid to respond to what they said because she didn't want to appear foolish if she hadn't heard them right. She remained almost as isolated as she had at home, but she felt more independent at home. After three months, she came back home.
After Mom moved close to me, I was in the habit of stopping by to see her on the way home from my daily post office trip in the early evening. I'd normally stay about an hour. We'd also spend most Sunday afternoons with her. Normally when I arrived, she was reading. I think she went through about three books a day after her social life went down to just my visits and church on Sunday if she felt up to it. She had become what many of the elderly become -- a shut in. She had no hobbies or strong interests she could pursue alone except reading. After she turned 85 and the volunteering had stopped, she only drove around the corner to the grocery stores and Walmart to get what she needed, and to the library. She was just not that secure with driving anymore. After we hired a companion, she didn't drive at all. The companion drove her, or I did. Except for the companion and me, and my brother's visits on major holidays, Mom was almost isolated during her last few years, except when she received visits from friends from church or her pastor.
Nutrition for a Shut-In
Nutritional Needs of the Elderly
One reason many of the elderly aren't as healthy as they could be is because they don't eat right. They just aren't motivated to cook nutritious meals for themselves. So they eat convenience foods or easy things like peanut butter sandwiches. Or they go out to lunch if they can find someone to go with. I could only go out for lunch once or twice a month. And, although I sometimes brought prepared meals to Mom, it wasn't a regular thing. Our answer to that (mostly mine, since Mom was resistant) was to hire a companion to come in three days a week for three hours a day to cook and do light housework and just be there. After about three tries we found one Mom really liked, and it proved to be a Godsend when she became more frail and needed 24 hour care toward the end of her life.
Unless an older person is very fortunate and remains in good health until the end of life, they eventually will need help to stay in their homes or they will have to move in with a child or into assisted living. Mom chose to stay in her home and hire the help she needed, and it proved to be a good decision. It worked because we started thinking about it before the need was urgent -- before she became very ill. By that time she and her companion had become fast friends and the companion was able to be with her when she was awake. I came in at night for the "swing" shift, and we had someone from an agency come during the sleeping hours. It was expensive, but so is assisted living, and even assisted living has its limits when someone gets very sick.
Eating Right to Make Aging Easier
When we are young, we don't feel it as much when we don't eat for optimal health. As we begin to age, our health problems become more evident. Dr. Peter D'Adamo has provided diet and life style advice for each different blood type, since his research has shown that each type is more susceptible to different diseases or to different forms of cancer. The sooner one starts to eat properly for one's blood type, the better off one will be as one ages.
In this book Dr. D'Adamo explains the research that supports his individualized diets by blood type. It is good background for the book described above.
This inexpensive kit will help you determine what your blood type is in the privacy of your own home. Except for a prick of your finger, it's painless. If you tend to be squeamish, you might want someone to help you with the procedure. Or you can donate blood and find out for free, as I did.
Preparing for Old Age
What You Can Do Now
Although we can never see exactly what the future may hold for us, there are some things we can do now that may help us in our later years. One is to seriously plan for financial security after we retire. Another is to form good eating habits now. Find easy to fix foods that you like and that are nutritious. Put the recipes in writing and keep them easy to find in case you need to instruct a caregiver at some point in your life what to cook for you. Get into the habit of eating fresh fruits and vegetables -- lots of them. They can help protect you from many ailments, including macular degeneration, heart disease, and cancer. Consider taking supplements for nutrients your eyes and brain need to stay in good working order. You might want to consult a doctor who is open to nutritional therapies.
Consider now, if you are married, that someday you may be widowed. Begin now to develop some hobbies or interests you can enjoy independently and pursue almost anywhere. Maybe you will want to write down some of your family history to pass to your children. While your husband is still living, maybe you can interview each other on video about your early lives as part of that project. This project will give you some interesting topics of conversation and will also bring back wonderful memories that will be good for you when you are feeling isolated. If possible, try to make some friends with common interests who are younger than you are and might survive you.
Take walks together if you can, for it will help keep you in better mental and physical shape if you get regular exercise. If you are single, try to find a friend to walk with, or get a dog who will walk with you. Gardening is also good exercise if you are physically able to do it. The earlier you start, the easier it will be. If you are still relatively young, consider making high raised beds now that will still be easy to work in when it's hard to kneel or bend down to work. Raising some of your own vegetables will also keep you healthier.
When you are still healthy, but approaching your seventies, you might want to move into a house that's all on one level and make sure it is accessible to wheelchairs and walkers. Put in shower grab bars and make knobs and faucets elder friendly with handles that go up and down instead of being turned. Take a walk through one of the senior residences and see what they have done to make it easier for their residents.
This is something most people never give a thought to in their fifties or sixties before they start to encounter physical limitations. My father-in-law was an architect who built a beautiful tri-level home in Carmel Valley, California. It was perfect for people who were not disabled. All the bedrooms and bathrooms but one were on the main entry level. Half a flight of stairs up was the spacious master bedroom suite with an equally spacious master bath with separate tub and shower. The kitchen, dining room, living room, and family room were all downstairs -- but there was no bathroom down there. When my in-laws hit their seventies, they had to convert part of the garage to another kitchen, much smaller and less beautiful than the one downstairs. Downstairs had become pretty inaccessible to them by then. They no longer could use their master suite for anything but storage, since that also meant climbing stairs. We inherited that house, but it seemed stupid to move into it as we were in our sixties by then. As we age, we will probably move to the house I inherited from my mom that is wheelchair accessible and has grab bars installed. Until we saw the predicament of my in-laws, we would never have thought like this. They hadn't thought about it either, until it was too late.
Thinking ahead can't solve all the problems of aging. But it can help you plan for a living situation you can function in should you become disabled, close to shopping and medical help with public transportation available nearby if you can no longer drive.
To guard against later social isolation, begin now to cultivate relationships with new people who have common interests. Don't neglect being active in a worship community of your faith. Not only will you get to know people of all generations, but you may have a lot to offer them. You will be able to help others when you are still strong, and if you ever become frail and more isolated, they will help take care of you. They may offer you rides to worship services and help out in an emergency. I've seen this in church after church I've belonged to. In my previous church the men of the church took turns helping to get a man in and out of bed morning and night. His wife couldn't lift him, but this help enabled them to stay in their home. Others came to take care of their lawn and clean the house periodically. Most churches bring meals to those who have lost a loved one or have had a severe medical emergency until they are able to carry on with their lives. Church members also offer emotional support at such times, even coming to the hospital to sit with you when your spouse is in surgery.
It's a great comfort when you seem invisible and unimportant to a lot of younger people to know that God loves you and that you are significant in his eyes. Getting to know your creator now will be your greatest resource when you are old. He will listen to you when no one else is there. He will still be with you when all your friends are gone. He will be your help in time of trouble. And he will finally take you to your eternal home when the time comes to leave this earth.