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Myth of Aging: It is scary how wrong we are about aging, and it’s making caregiving harder

Myth of Aging: It is scary how wrong we are about aging, and it’s making caregiving harder

Myth of Aging: It is scary how wrong we are about aging, and it’s making caregiving harder

Myth of Aging: It is scary how wrong we are about aging, and it’s making caregiving harder.

 

First off, let me say I have no idea how to spell aging (ageing), so I'll use both. Most pieces of advice on how to help your aging parents often resemble standardized flight procedures - a checklist of do's and don'ts on how to assist THEM.

Do: Communicate openly

Do: Arrange all legal matters

Do: Help with their finances

Do: Encourage socializing in the community

Do: Organize important phone numbers

Do: Increase their activity level

Do: Conduct a home safety check

Don't: Exclude them from decision-making

Don't: Neglect self-care

Don't: Forget to set boundaries

And so on...

Seniors and adult children receive this advice, each interpreting it differently. Our parents view it as mere suggestions from people or institutions who can't understand their experience. Adult children see it as a guide on how to be a dutiful and responsible child, sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility. Both parties dance around decades of relationship patterns ignored in this conversation, which lie between generations and siblings. How does one even begin with such uncharted territory? So many potential challenges to navigate: siblings, finances, distance, parental relationships, history, forgiveness, trauma, medical conditions, emotions, fear... the list goes on.

The advice I’m giving is uniquely  from my own experience, although I share it daily with many dealing with aging parents. No lists, no bullet points, no fixed structure; just a few words that resonated with me, urging me towards an extraordinary yet daunting purpose: to change not my aging parents, but myself – a personal pre-flight checklist. I aimed to understand my journey before supporting theirs. I didn't aim to change their views, emotions, or behaviors; I aimed to understand my role in their journey and unpack my own baggage of beliefs, fears, and expectations.

I encourage you, whether a dutiful child, a senior navigating aging, a compassionate service provider, or a well-meaning friend, to join me in unraveling the complex narrative of aging. It's time to acknowledge, challenge our perceptions.  If you are OLDER , please help us understand by sharing with us openly the experience and the feelings and freedom that come along with that experience.

Why are we so afraid of aging?

Navigating the shifting tides of intergenerational interaction starts with an uncomfortable reality – we are all, to some extent, tainted by ageism. It is a silent, pervasive framework, repeatedly thrust upon us by businesses, societies, and is not based in fact at all but perception and fear. I want us to discuss that because we are all victims of this and guilty of this until we are old. And then we know what those younger than us will not understand until they are gloriously and unabashedly old. My husband is 92, I am lucky enough to witness his experience at his side and those of his peers. Conversations that do not discuss aging or the cannots (except the occasional chuckle of what is not working as well as it used to). There is no doom, no fear, no loss of motivation or curiosity. There is contentment, happiness, joy in the smaller things, tons of gratitude, and the impact of familiar voices and faces. At 47, I also continue to hear the rhetoric around me that everything is chasing a youthful glow, anti-aging, vitamins, creams, hairstyles, clothes. Not becoming irrelevant.

I am here to announce: there is a SEISMIC gap in our understanding of what aging might actually feel like and our IGNORANCE IS NOT SERVING US AT ALL.

It is so subtle in our conversations,

"Oh, you look great, you have not changed at all"

"Oh, you look so young"

"What are you doing, you are the same size you were in high school"

And many much more overt. Cover your roots, Botox, retinol, naps, competition on how active you are, fear of slowing down, fear of retirement.

Ageism is the unfounded prejudice against older people that each of us has imbibed with the culture, the expectations, the advertisements that shape our outlook. It is us feeling they are less than what they were before. It’s in the way we knit our brows when an elder takes a tad longer to reply, the sudden shock we cast upon someone who dares to display both gray hair and vitality, the feigned empathy as we shout our words to the hard of hearing. We are doing a great injustice to OURSELVES more than we are to those we are caring for and we are doing a greater disjustice to our kids. With every assumption, raised eyebrow and sigh we are hating our future self. We are dreading our own story and journey and teaching our kids the same. We are making each day we spend today worth less than the day before.

Why do we not look at an older person and assume they know so much more, more days, more lessons, more experience, more failure, more time, more healing. We look at movement as slow instead of measured. My husband is a wonder. And we have been married 17 years, over 6000 days and in each of those days I have learned something new from him. And being at his side has completely changed my approach to my parents as they begin to show signs of advanced years.

I have learned that deterioration happens differently for each human and external indicators do not mean much. I have learned that physical mobility deterioration is not necessarily correlated at all with the cognitive. That humor is timeless and seems to sharpen with age. That for every one thing he cannot do as well, there are about 30 things he can do better or understand better. The understanding of human nature and the patience to accept and deal with people is far greater, even if the temperament is shorter. He is less surprised about how people act than I am. And Above ALL else I remember that he is motivated the same way I am, by how I feel.

Why are we never focused on how older people feel or what they know (the unseen), we just focus on how they look and interpret what that means.

Do not misunderstand. I am still blindsided by my own ageism often, but I try to hear it in my head and get a hold of it. Lean into the fears I hear in my own unfounded belief systems.

So here is the checklist I give myself.  I often run it over in my head when there is a new incident (diagnosis, fall, change in behavior or activity)

  1. What am I afraid of? Is it real? Is it death, caregiving, uncertainty, managing the emotions of our twins?
  2. What might my Older (usually my husband but sometimes my parents) be feeling?  If I do not know at all, I will ask to understand.  I am usually way off on this. I have assumed often in the past that he has the same fears I do. FALSE. He is rarely afraid.
  3. What does my Older wish to do? What choice does he want to make for himself? This is hard folks, buckle up.  I will give you an example. I am terrified he will fall. And I DO NOT want him to wear a sarong (it's like a traditional long skirt like pajama bottoms). I want him to wear trouser PJs. I used to get infuriated and keep reminding him he was going to fall, until one day it hit me. He knows he may fall.  He is choosing to wear them anyway and take the risk. He has worn this attire his whole life and would rather fall if that is the price for wearing what HE IS COMFORTABLE in.
  4. Am I assigning false meaning to his actions?  i.e. Him continuing to wear a sarong means he doesn't love me enough to wear the trousers and wants to live longer for me. (Ok, as I write this it seems ridiculous but it is a real belief I had to unwind).  Just because our older loved ones do NOT want to adhere to what we think is best does not mean they do not love us, and presenting this conclusion is both unfair and manipulative. (I said what I said) 
  5. What do I want to teach my kids? How do I want them to approach me? 

My role as a caregiver is not  to tell him how to live, it is not to be responsible for his happiness, it is not even to extend his life at all costs.  It IS to try and understand to the best of my ability how he wants to LIVE and support him in doing just that.

I challenge us, not to combat our instinct to judge but to question it. To look beyond the veil of stereotypes and confront the dynamic individuality of every person, regardless of the years they've accumulated. To speak to OurOlders as our peers and seek insight and advice. To laugh with older people (it is its OWN VIBE). It is in stripping away these layers that we can engage with our aging loved ones, or individuals in our community, with genuine respect and awe for the journeys they've lived. We are looking to the wrong sources for insight on aging.

If you are from the sandwich generation, or a new caregiver or starting to think about aging parents, find an older person, preferably one at least 30 years your senior and not family. Ask them if they have any worries, what the best part of their day is, what they look forward to, who they laugh the most with, and what is the one thing they could have told their younger self to  reassure them at your age (enter your age here).

You will be relieved and calmed by what you learn.