Aging: Information on the Natural Process of Aging and Help for Caregivers of Aging Individuals
Irene recently lost her husband and is now forced to battle cancer on her own. A neighbor is concerned with her living conditions and is worried that Irene is having trouble taking care of her self properly.
David and Sheila did not choose to have children until much later in life. Just as their children are entering their teens, David and Sheila were presented with the choice of becoming caregivers for Sheila’s widowed mother after she fell, injuring her hip.
Bernice has been a frequent volunteer at the hospital ever since retiring from her nursing position. However, recently her health has been declining and she is not sure how much longer she will be able to continue volunteering, never mind living on her own.
DEFINITIONS & KEY THOUGHTS
Aging is a normal and natural process that everyone must undergo at his or her own time and pace. The rate at which one ages cannot be controlled, however, it is influenced by several factors including emotional attitude, family history, lifestyle, and chronic medical conditions.
While the risks of illness and disability do increase with age, it is not inevitable that one will fall into poor health simply due to aging. In fact, those who engage in healthy lifestyles that include such components as a balanced diet, regular exercise, and no tobacco use actually have half the risk of developing a disability than those who do not.
In terms of caring for aging parents, it is no surprise that doing so can be gratifying. However, just how gratifying it is can depend on a lot of different issues including, one’s own health, financial resources, emotional resilience, and whether or not they are still raising children. So while being a caregiver is commendable, it is not always the best option if there are others to be considered.
The “sandwich years” is an expression that refers to middle-aged people who are both raising children of their own and caring for their parents. They are “sandwiched” between two generations, and it can often feel like a well-coordinated dance or a vice grip.
The tendency is that as people age, their idiosyncrasies often become more pronounced. Those who are easygoing will most likely continue to be laid back, however, those who are uptight may continue to become increasingly anxious or paranoid with age.
As people undergo the aging process, they are likely to experience many transitions and even losses. Such might include lessened physical abilities, energy, and strength; retirement; transitioning from parent to grandparent; deaths of peers and friends; a tighter financial budget; the loss of a spouse; and lowered social status.
In counseling a caregiver, it is important to impress upon the person that the issues related to aging are complex and that there are a wealth of resources available for caregivers and for elderly people. It is also important to encourage the person to gather as much information as possible (from doctors, neighbors, other family members, etc.) in order to find out how the aging person is doing and whether or not critical concerns exist. The possibility of financial or physical elder abuse or neglect should be assessed, as well.
Financial abuse occurs when family members or friends take financial resources from an elderly person for their own benefit. It is a particular risk when the elderly person is no longer in control of his or her own finances or when they tend to become easily confused.
Elder neglect occurs when the people an older person is living with deliberately neglect their needs for food, shelter, clothing, protection from extremes in temperature, and a clean environment. This can occur inadvertently if a previously healthy spouse or live-in family member becomes sick or confused and is unable to continue providing a safe environment for the older person.
Elder abuse occurs when physical violence is directed at an older person. It could be from a family or stranger that is the older person’s caregiver, or it could be domestic violence that has been ongoing toward a victim that is now over the age of 65.
For aging people poor health and loss of independence are not inevitable consequences of growing older. There are a number of strategies to preserve health and independence for older people to consider. They include:
- Early disease detection. Older people should be encouraged to participate in any screenings recommended to them. Screening to detect diseases early- at the stage when they are most easily treated- saves many lives.
- Healthy lifestyle. Having a healthy lifestyle is more powerful than a person’s genes in helping people to avoid the decline usually associated with aging.
- Immunizations. Important immunizations like flu shots or pneumonia vaccines reduce one’s risk for hospitalization and death as a result of illness.
- Injury prevention. Installing grab bars in key areas (i.e., bathrooms) and removing tripping hazards in the home will significantly reduce an older person’s likelihood of falling and injuring themselves.
- Programs to aid in self-management and adaptation. There are several programs that exist in order to teach older people self-management techniques and to help them to cope with and manage the transitions that will accompany their later years.
In terms of determining the proper living situation for an elderly person, it is best to begin by having the caregiver and elderly person rank the person’s needs together and in order of importance. Determine how those needs could be met through minimal upheaval- often the choice is not necessary between living alone or in a nursing home. There are actually many options in between the two extremes: care in a group home; skilled nursing care; non-medical home care for meals, cleaning or home maintenance (i.e., meals on wheels); aid at home during key hours of the day for things like bathing and dressing; assisted living or sheltered/catered care (i.e., situations that provide meals, transportation to stores, medication reminders, or other support services); shared housing with a younger, non-family member; adult daycare for those who have friends or family with them at other times; retirement home living; and senior housing complexes that are apartment complexes that provide extra support at a lower price to needy older people.
In determining the proper living situation for an elderly person, it is also important to consider that any changes in lifestyle will affect all family members involved in their life and to keep upheaval to a minimum- particularly if the family life of caregivers is already demanding or intense. Also, it is crucial to consider all of the options and to enlist several people in the decision-making process. Last, one should remember that giving en older person something to live for (i.e., hobbies, love, purpose) and a sense of structure and stability through schedules can add an amazing amount of confidence to an older person’s everyday life.
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(Portions of the above material is reprinted with permission from Thrive Boston Counseling in Boston, MA.)