Today’s post is from Bobbi Jo Curty, our team’s community caregiving navigator. Bobbi Jo is an experienced geriatric social worker and one of our Caregiving Advice coaches. She’ll regularly share her perspectives from the field here on the blog. Read more about Bobbi Jo’s background.
“I’m the only one left.”
A resident gave me this response when I, as her social worker in the life care community where I was employed, was taking her personal history.
Anna W. was a 90-something year old, and for no other reason than life’s natural circumstances, she was the last one living from her small family and circle of friends.
When I think about loss for the older generation, I often imagine a spouse passing away, leaving the other behind in a state of grief, struggling daily.
Or as this resident explained to me, no longer having the presence of any family members or friends—spouse, children, life-long friendships—removed from their earthly state with only distant memories remaining.
Throughout my years of engaging in conversations with aging adults, I’ve come to understand the concept of loss is not limited to only grief after losing a loved one (which is often the most significant). It’s also the loss of so many other routines, hobbies, and pleasures that we take for granted every day.
The gift of empathy is a healing balm to those who have experienced loss. And since experiencing loss is something that no one hopes to endure—yet no one can escape—we are all connected this way. We must grow in our awareness to see and feel what our loved ones might be enduring through compounded losses—known and unknown, great and small—over their lifetime.
Here are a few of the losses we should consider and develop empathy around:
Loss of independence
As I’ve now reached my mid-thirties, the thought of no longer having my independence is a hard pill to swallow. I truly cannot imagine how it would feel to no longer be able to independently come and go, or to do whatever I please.
There are various levels of independence in each of our lives. I think it depends largely on our support systems, and our family and friends. We may be dependent on others for certain parts of our lives to run smoothly, yet we often overlook the independent tasks in our daily routines:
- When we wake up and when we go to bed.
- What we choose to eat throughout the day.
- What music we want to listen to…what TV show we want to watch…what book we want to read.
- What clothing we want to wear.
- Where we want to drive and at what time we want to get in the car to drive.
When you think of all the little things we do and decisions we make throughout the day, a lot of those details are due to our own independent choice.
Many older adults or individuals with special needs feel they don’t have the independence they want or used to have. Often, this is likely due to safety precautions and what we think is “best for them.” But it doesn’t negate the individual’s feelings about a the loss of control or choice.
Loss of mental capacity/physical function
Imagine working hard all your life—long, late nights of studying, graduating from a top-rated university, being employed 30+ years in the engineering industry—only to watch your mind gradually deteriorate away.
The mathematical skills you used like the back of your hand or the way you easily balanced your checkbooks start to become a struggle instead of a breeze.
Or being an avid runner all your life, taking care of your body, and watching what you eat for a heart-healthy diet—only to have your physical body no longer function at its prime due to medical conditions out of your control?
When someone experiences ongoing changes in their mental capacity or physical body, it can spiral them into a whirlwind of depression or anger— because they are no longer able to do things as before.
If your loved one is dealing with cognitive or physiological losses, here are some ways to ease into this transition:
- Try not to give too many options when you want them to make a decision or complete a physical task. Instead, ask them one question at a time and allow time for them to respond or to perform that task.
- Some environments or events may be overstimulating. Instead, avoid largely crowded locations and enjoy settings with calm music and a smaller group of people.
- Set up your loved one’s home with their safety in mind: remove hoards of objects on the floor, eliminate throw rugs, install assistive devices in the bathroom or walkways.
- If you notice your loved one struggling with a task, offer to help them, but allow them to lead and control the situation by stating, “Can you show me how you do this? … Ok, like this? Can I also try it this way?…”
Loss of decision-making ability
One of the most common challenges I witness among caregivers and their loved ones is the loss of decision-making capacity.
Many caregivers are usually younger than their loved ones (a child, niece or nephew, cousin). Imagine how aggravating it can be when you go to a doctor’s appointment and the doctor is not talking to you at all, but instead speaking to and only making eye contact with your caregiver?
I’ve witnessed this more often than I’d like to admit!
Due to various factors, a person might not be able to make big decisions about medical procedures, or about things regarding their finances.
However, IF your loved one is physically with you in the room with a medical professional or a financial advisor, they have the right to be spoken to and acknowledged within the same conversation.
THEY ARE IN THE SAME ROOM!
Remember, even though a person may have physical ailments or a cognitive impairment, they are still an individual and have value, and a person who can still make basic decisions.
- If there is an upcoming medical procedure, although she may not understand all the medical lingo, keep your loved one informed about what is going to happen.
- If there is an update with your caree’s finances, keep him/her informed whenever he/she asks. Print bank statements so he/she has a hard copy as a go-to when needed.
- Continue to present to your loved one options so he is able to make decisions and maintain control, as he’s able.
These losses not only affect the individual, but will affect the caregiver as well. Experiencing loss is part of life’s progression, but I believe we all have a choice in how we respond to our losses. We can choose to push through and take on the changes and the challenges. Instead of feeling despair, depression and overwhelm, we can choose to find strength, joy, and hope.