As our elders age, the way they are treated by others changes. In American culture, we don’t have protections in place that can ensure the treatment your parent receives will be a reflection of our general social communication norms.
Due to this fact - our elders will often be addressed as “Honey” or “Sweetie” or they are spoken about in front of them as though they are not there. Our culture has a broad based approach to the elder population that diminishes the truth of their inherent value and as a result our approaches to caring for them and speaking to them can reflect this.
When you are out in public with an elder, counteracting dismissive behaviors can be educational for those doing it. You can respond by commenting quickly. “My Mom can understand you better if you address her directly.” “I call my grandkids sweetie and honey - not my parents.”
Supporting their dignity and respect can mean so much when an elder begins to get used to the invisible feeling that comes with being dismissed as not equally present or valuable. Unfortunately, our elders become more like the subject of a joke, than something we discuss with a serious tone and note.
Moving slowly, thinking slowly, even speaking slowly all give others the impression that the elderly cannot keep up with the normal pace of life. Even though this may be true; a simple reflection on how difficult it was to have arrived at this threshold and another reflection on how difficult it must be to have found oneself at this threshold are warranted. This is what prevents a disrespectful response to what some may view as a need for more patience and understanding.
At the doctor
Unfortunately, most doctors are also guilty of assuming the elderly patient is not fully cognitive. Anytime you are with an elder at a doctor’s appointment, it is always good to remind the professional to speak directly to your elder and not assume they are unable to understand or directly respond. The tendency for doctors to speak with the elder’s companion is remarkably common.
The point here is that if your elder cannot fully understand - it is the dignity supporting effort of giving them the opportunity to say so that matters. It is never comfortable to be ignored, and it is simply disrespectful to ignore one’s elders.
With the family
In general, the patterns of communication that have already been set up within a family system will hold. What changes - is the perception of the elder’s capacity for comprehension and their capacity to respond quickly or smoothly to social situations.
Grandchildren will follow the cues left by their parents. If parents are treating grandma and grandpa with respect, so will the children. If parents are becoming upset and impatient with grandma’s memory and inability to make it to the bathroom quickly enough - so will the grandkids. We teach by doing. We learn by watching. And unfortunately, we tend to repeat the same mistakes of those who went before us.
Sometimes it makes more sense to have helpers who are not caught up in the patterns we have laid down in the past. Sometimes having patience means getting a helper who isn’t triggered by the old family games of communication that can so easily collapse into annoyance, irritation or angst.
A professional care provider is able to support the dignity and respect the independence of our aging elders. Professional care providers are trained to support cognitive decline with dignity and respect because our elders have already earned and paid for a life that has given to the world in so many uncountable, unmeasurable ways.
Ensuring that our elders are respected by being allowed to age in place and have the support they deserve that enhances the feelings they need of retaining their dignity is a critical kindness - as their bodies betray them and their mind sneaks away.
If you would like a booklet called the 40/70 or our option for siblings called the 50/50 on how to engage with such conversations- call my office 586-1516 and request we mail one to you, it would be our pleasure free of charge.
Julie Ann Soukoulis is the owner of Home Instead Senior care office in Rohnert Park, mother of two and passionate about healthy living at all ages. Having cared for her own two parents, she understands your struggles and aims, through her website, www.homeinstead.com/sonoma to educate and encourage seniors & caregivers. Have a caregiving or aging concern? She’s love to hear from you at 586-1516 anytime.