The author Fay Weldon advises, “Labels serve to diminish rather than define us.” That admonition is well worth considering when we assist our elder relatives to live full, meaningful lives.
Too often when an elder faces a disability, we focus on problems and discount capabilities. Health care providers often don’t help in this regard. After all, how often do you hear providers say how much elders have “got going” for them?
When an elder’s gait slows, it is tempting to assume she or he is unable to walk distances. That assumption is frequently untrue. One daughter, planning a trip with her mother, believed her mother needed a wheelchair for the walk to the airport gate. The daughter finally agreed to give up the idea of the wheelchair, and they made the walk together, slowly, offering the mother a chance to exercise. Later, the daughter remarked that “even her mother’s posture improved” as she revised her expectation of her mother’s ability.
One son, recognizing his mother’s increased forgetfulness, assumed her feelings were dulled. Because she forgot her dying husband’s exact diagnosis, her son assumed she was unaware of this significant loss. When the son was reminded that a memory deficit does not translate into lack of perception and sensitivity, mother and son more openly began to share their grief. He offered her the support she needed and in turn received her support.
When we become too focused on a disability, we tend to globalize it. Although it is important to comprehend how a disability impacts daily living skills in order to provide for an elder’s safely and well being, it is equally important to see clearly what capabilities remain and how to foster them. Mother may be unable to do laundry, but may be able to fold clothes. Dad might be unable to mow the lawn, but may be able to sweep the porch.
An elder’s strengths and abilities help him or her to maintain or regain a sense of health and well being. With sensitivity, creativity and some risk taking, new activities can replace activities no longer possible. Even in the face of forgetfulness or confusion, appreciating an elder’s inner reserves opens us to the wisdom an elder can impart. Recognition of an elder’s strengths and abilities is a gift, not only to the elder, but also to ourselves.