“Did the staff tell you what you COULD do?” the nurse asked Leo as he outlined all the prohibitions given to him after suffering a stroke. Indeed, without assistance in how he might creatively adapt previous activities to his new physical limitations, he felt that “my life is over.” With a singular focus on safety, Leo’s caregivers neglected to see that he was given a prescription for a life he didn’t see as worth living.
All of us, no matter how what our circumstances, need a reason to wake up in the morning. In a rush to a remedy, well meaning family members and professionals can overlook an exploration of what brings meaning to an individual’s life.
How do we reconcile the reality of necessary limitations with a desire to maintain a sense of self, a sense of competency and worth? An older adult facing a loss in function and abilities may cling to “what was”, disconnected from the caregivers and providers who, with good intent, offer encouragement and support to “move on.” The challenge is to bridge that disconnect.
In the opening of A Poisonwood Bible, author Barbara Kingsolver reminds us “one has only a life of one’s own.” An extension of that obvious statement is the often-overlooked consideration that we all learn and grow in our own way and at our own pace. Coping with grief and loss is, in many ways, a solitary and individual experience. Caring for another who is in emotional pain because of a loss of health and function includes acknowledging the experience and its pain. When we see another suffer, we may too quickly look for a remedy to make it “better”. Support often involves simply being with the other, allowing time and space for grief before urging the individual to “go forward.”
Meaning in life, it seems, comes from authentic encounters. No one can create meaning for another, but perhaps in care giving we can make a contribution. How do we help an older adult continue to look for and find meaning as opportunities seem increasingly denied? Some suggestions for opening an exchange that can help the older adult find their own answers and their own sense of meaning:
- Offer a large dose of listening before giving a small dose of advice.
- Ask questions, rather than giving answers:
- “What are you afraid of?”
- “You seem sad, are you?”
- “If we could change one thing to make you feel better, what would that be?”
- “What would you like?”
- “What did you like?”
- Acknowledge feelings, resist labeling them as “good” or “bad”.
- Express confidence, rather than pity.
- Take time, not control.
- Look to possibilities, rather than prohibitions.
Resiliency is a gift of aging — older adults don’t achieve longevity without a significant spirit of resolve. As we care for older adults and help them accept life losses with grace and a sense of meaning, we are well advised to look to our elders for that store of resiliency and take our cues.