Understanding the Elderly

by Dr. Beverly Block

Barbara Averre, MHPCS, M.A. explains what the future holds for American senior citizens

Many people do not have the opportunity to interact with elderly people on a regular basis, and you may be one of them. I strongly suggest that you seek out situations where you can engage in conversation with the older generation. Sometimes initiating conversation with someone so far removed from your environment can seem awkward, stilted, or even boring; but when you have patience, you will be surprised at the rewards. Ask questions and then sit back and listen. Elderly people are not only the link to your past, but they are who you will be one day -- the link to your future.

Besides a wealth of wisdom that only the elderly can impart, relationships with a past generation can give us a deeper understanding and even make us more comfortable with our own aging and eventually with our own mortality. Think about the memories that you have with Grandparents or Aunts and Uncles. Do you have questions that will never be answered because you didn't take the time to ask them when you had the chance? If you have Grandparents who are still living take a tape recorder on your next visit. Ask them questions about their lives. What have they experienced that you never did? What are you doing in your life that they can never have imagined? If you allow them to be, conversations with the elderly can be mutual gifts. You are allowing them an opportunity to share their greatest possessions -- their memories -- and they are allowing you to share experiences that you are having -- the dream of a life that they will never know. You are giving each other a glimpse of both the past and the future. What a great gift to give one another and it doesn't cost a thing.

Take advantage of the experiences of those older, and now, wiser. They have already forgotten more then we know. Elderly people have fought and won the wars, endured unparalleled financial hardships, and essentially lived in a different world than our own. Perhaps you can benefit by learning from their successes and failures, and then one day pass it on yourself. As their eyesight is slowly failing, allow them the joy of 20/20 vision again -- through hindsight. I guarantee, it is not only their vision you will improve. Life is very fragile and all the more precious when you are very old. Do what you can to make these days special for them, while making the most of your time together for yourself. Whether you are mentioned in their will or not, you'll be a wealthy beneficiary.

Understanding The ElderlyI have spent a good deal of time working with the elderly patient -- in Seminars, Seniors Centers, and Retirement Homes. Most of them have told me that they not only benefit being with a younger person, but it is definitely a reciprocal relationship. They are aware that they have something left to give and teenagers are more than willing to accept these gifts. They feel that their own parents are often judgmental, their friends are not always trustworthy, their teachers are too busy, and many do not have grandparents to listen to them. No one seems to have the interest or the time and these older people have nothing but time.

I visited a Convalescent Home recently and spoke to a group of seniors and four teen volunteers. Two of the teens were there because they were doing Community Service for infractions of school rules -- so they had additional ‘baggage' in tow. This did not faze the elders. "Everyone has problems," said one woman. " We all deserve a second chance and sometimes a third and fourth one. Somebody has to give it to us."

In a small group we discussed all of the things that formed a common bond between these very diverse people. The young adults were surprised how much alike they were to each other and the elders just smiled knowingly. The span of fifty or sixty years that separated them seemed like the ‘blink of an eye'. They discussed a list of common concerns and we had a wonderful afternoon exchanging ideas and possible solutions. Here is their mutual Want List:

  • We want to feel that we are in control of our own lives. Realistically we know that sometimes we are too young or too old to have this control all of the time, but give us the chance to fail -- or perhaps succeed -- in certain areas. We might surprise you.
  • We want dignity and we want respect. Don't dismiss what we have to say and who we are. Accept us for who we are, who we were, and who we might become.
  • We want recognition of our contributions and for our yet untapped potential.
  • We want hope. We need to create a balance between hope and realism. The young and the old still tend to believe that all things are possible, but we need to know what is realistic and what is just fantasy.
  • We want attention from those that we love and respect. There is nothing more painful than being ignored. Small children often seek negative attention rather than be ignored. Sometimes we do the same thing.
  • We want privacy and a respect for our ‘space'.
  • We want autonomy. Please let us do the things that we can, even if it doesn't meet your standards.
  • We want friends. It is hard for us to find real friends at this stage of our lives whether young or old.
  • We want the people close to us to understand that we are often depressed and suffer from low self-esteem. At these times we need someone to listen.
  • We want freedom. We want to have this as long as possible.
  • We want to be in touch with our Spirituality. This will help us face our own mortality. You don't have to be ‘old' to face this inevitability.

This amazing group also came up with the 'because words' they don't ever want to hear -- from their parents and from their children.

1. "Because it's good for you."

2. "Because you're not able to do it on your own."

3. " Because I know what's best."

4. " Because you can't manage your own money."

5. " Because you need to socialize more, get out more, develop new interests, etc."

Some of these things may be true and my group was aware of this possibility, but they still didn't want to hear it. They felt that these comments were judgmental and demeaning comments at any age. The elderly and the young both need to feel that they have some control of their lives -- even though often they don’t. We all want to feel in control, don't we? Children fight for control, adults need it in their lives, and old people hold on to it as long as they possibly can. Let them have as much as they can handle.

Most of the elderly people that I met loved being with the teenagers. They respected their sameness and accepted their differences. The friendships they shared were unconditional. The older people were fascinated with this independent generation --the body piercing, the tattoos, and the off-beat attire. I would like to share a classic encounter between one of the teens doing Community Service work and a man in his eighties who was a Marine in World War II. The young girl was planning on getting a tattoo that afternoon and was sharing the fact that her parents would be furious, but she didn't care. The older gentleman didn't seem shocked or disgusted and that made it comfortable for her to engage him in conversation. When she told him how unreasonable her parents were, he just listened. She stated that it was ‘her body' and they shouldn't tell her what she could do with it. He just listened to her vent and finally she asked him what he thought, and this was his reply.

"I got my first tattoo when I was just about your age. I was on leave in Hawaii and I must admit that me and my buddies were a little drunk -- but I'd have done it anyway. I had a sweet Hula girl tattooed on my right arm and she was a Honey. I gave her the name Edna, cause that was my sweetheart back home. She moved her hips when I flexed my muscles and the guys loved that. On my other arm I had the Marine Corp. Emblem and an American Eagle in flight. Boy, was I proud !", he said smiling.

"Can I see them?", the teenager asked.

"Sure can, but I have to warn you, they don't exactly look the same now. It took me years to remove the Edna, because the girl I married was named Alice. They could only get the ‘n' and ‘a' off, so I just told people that my middle name was Ed. The other problem is that I never thought I'd lose those muscles and Sweet Edna wouldn't wiggle any more and the sagging skin of my eighty-five years would leave my proud eagle looking like he fought one too many battles. Too bad they lost their glory, but boy, I sure did enjoy them when I was young though."

At this point the Ex-Marine rolled up his sleeves and showed the kids his once colorful and amazing tattoos -- now faded and sagging -- only a pathetic memory of what once was. Nothing was said, but I don't think his new friend kept her appointment at the tattoo parlor that day. The elderly man did not lecture, and he did not judge, because he remembered being young. He never thought he would live to regret a young Marine's amazing night on Bishop Street in Honolulu. The message was heard, loud and clear -- because the story was a story not a lecture. I think this is a great example of how a generation -- once removed -- handled a delicate situation.

Call your grandparents and tell them how much you love and appreciate them. We don't say, "I love you" often enough. A grandparent's connection to you is priceless because their love is unconditional. My own Grandmother never left the confines of her home but she took me to places I could only dream of and will never forget. She left me with a love that has lasted my lifetime and a priceless gift of story telling that hopefully I will pass on to my grandchildren.

Invite an elderly person to tea, for teatime is truly a blessing and a bridge between the generations. It’s comforting, inviting, and a ritual that is virtually lost to our generation. Most of us are in such a hurry that we don't feel that we can set aside an afternoon for some quiet time with an elderly friend -- precious moments when the world stands still.

Resurrect the bygone era when women found their therapy in ‘quilting' and ‘come to tea' meant let's exchange ideas and share a bit of our lives.

Quietly and without threat the tea ritual feels safe, comforting, inviting. It calls us out of ourselves and into a relationship. When we offer tea to someone, especially an elderly person, we are also offering ourselves. We are saying that we will listen to them, treat them with respect, and be present for them.

I feel that the elderly give us many gifts of which we are not aware: their attitudes, their approval, their views on life, and their acceptance of death as part of life. They make it so much easier for the rest of us to face our mortality, and all we need to do is listen. This is one of the most important lessons that I have only recently learned in relation to my own aging Mother. I was overwhelming her with logical, scientific explanations for her memory loss ( which, of course, she didn’t remember five minutes later)— instead of just listening to what she was saying and trying to enter her reality instead of dragging her into mine. When I was a child and I asked a simple child’s question, she didn’t give me an answer that would be appropriate for a Rhodes Scholar; she listened and answered in my reality.

What we must remember is that the elderly are moving toward the end of their lives in their own way, and we must allow them to “dance the dance” how they choose—however out of step it may be. They are not as concerned with their own mortality as we are. We don’t want to hear it, but we must. If they want to discuss their plans for their funeral — listen. If they see loved ones that you don’t see or hear — listen. If they tell you that they are at peace and the Earth does not hold them any longer — listen. This is all they need from you right now. I have talked to many elderly people and many feel that the world has become too difficult and that their work here is done. As day-to-day living grows harder, the idea of death grows easier. In essence, the landing will not be as hard as the fall. I would like to share this poem that was written for my Dad in his last days on the Earth. The words made it easier for me to ‘let go’.

THE CAGE
by Darren Block

"He looked out of the bubble he called Home and surrounded by his friends and family, found himself alone
He was a small boy in a body ravaged by the racing hands of time
He finally found joy in the Jaded comfort of his pampered age.
It wasn't so bad to be trapped inside a gray and dying Cage.
They were around him now, though he seemed to go unnoticed all those years
His Spirit resounding now.
Unabraised by all those unattained careers, don't make no difference now
Cause you've pretty much outlived all of your Peers
"Won't You snatch my Soul and leave my Bones behind
Take me by the hand and let me see You turn the water into wine.
This Earth ain't got no hold on me no more
Let me step inside Your Kingdom and You can shut that big Gold Door."

If you are dealing with a loved one at the end of their life, remember to be in their reality. As the author says, they know it’s time to move on, so allow them to “step inside His Kingdom.”

Dr. Beverly Block