Preserving Dignity in the Elderly

It has been a little over six years since my mother had her first stroke. Two years later a subsequent stroke took her life. After that my (then 93 year-old) year old father moved into an assisted living facility and respiratory failure hypoxia has become his terminal diagnosis recently placing him in hospice care. My mother-in-law is struggling with advanced dementia and my father-in-law has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

This chapter of my life has been the most difficult of any chapters already written. This is not only because of the illnesses my parents and my husband’s parents have/are facing, but also because of my constant vigil to preserve their dignity during the final days/years of their lives.

By nature I am not a very patient person. I am a type A personality with a desire to do everything as quickly as possible and get on to the next thing. I also tend to interrupt people and finish their sentences for them when I feel like they are taking too long to speak.

Add to that the fact that I am also a perfectionist, so I really wants things done right. Not particularly “my way” but at least in a way that I am comfortable with.

Obviously then, preserving another person’s dignity is not something that comes naturally to me… AND, preserving the dignity of the elderly is even harder because of their decreasing ability to do things/think quickly and thoroughly.

However, I have found an ability to deal with many of the situations/conversations that inevitably come about in some rather creative ways, with the hope that I do indeed preserve their dignity.

The first reason for this is simply God’s ability in my inability. I have prayed often that my shortcomings in this area will not affect my family members that I care so much about. I can attest to the fact that often I am astounded at the amount of patience I have during testing times. There is no other explanation than God is doing this despite me.

The second reason for this is that I have been in management in several businesses along with owning a few businesses. This has required me to learn how to mediate during hard conversations in order to get everyone to work together so that collectively they can problem-solve.

The final reason is I have found I have the ability to laugh and direct conversations away from a problem in order to diffuse potential battles.

Let’s face it… working with elderly parents is often a battlefield whether you want it to be or not. They have their way of thinking and doing… AND they have done things their way for a lifetime. When we come along with new ideas and suggestions, no matter how good these ideas and suggestions might be, it is a natural response for them to have a negative reaction. So here are specifics on how you can make these conversations easier, and hopefully more successful.

1. Explain things thoroughly along with an explanation of why you feel something is a good idea.

2. Use “I” statements when having hard conversations versus using “you” statements (figuratively pointing your finger).

3. Sometime it helps to diffuse an uncomfortable situation if you start a conversation with “There really is no easy way to work my way into this conversation. (smile) So, I am going to jump right in”. That way you are not trying to walk on eggshells, they know something difficult is going to be discussed and they really do not get a choice in whether they want to talk about it or not. However, since you are the one who made the decision to jump right in, their dignity is preserved because they have the ability to respond as they wish to what you have to say.

4. Always be prepared to hear things you have heard over and over and practice responding with either new comments or facial expressions (or both) that don’t give away that they have said it before. If they ask whether they have told you something previously be honest and let them know if they have.

5. Engage them with simple comments or even ask some questions when you are on slow walks to the car, into the store or wherever. Examples would be commenting on birds flying overheard or a dog barking or asking them if they know what kind of bush you are walking by – if you don’t know. It will help keep your mind engaged thus making you less inpatient… in addition to making them a part of the situation.

6. When they begin to say things that are mixed-up, respond with questions that do not validate what they are saying but don’t argue with them either. An example of this would be when my father told me that his brother had worked for a time somewhere that I knew he hadn’t. My response was, “Really? I didn’t know he had ever been here for anything else than to visit. Well maybe he lived and worked here before I was born.” Sometimes this will spark reality and they will realize what they said isn’t right. Even if it doesn’t you have not made them feel silly and small by arguing with what them or correcting them.

Each of us who find ourselves in situations with elderly parents that threaten their dignity want to do everything possible to not strip that from them. The role of prayer in these situations cannot be minimized. I believe prayer to the God of the Bible can enable us to do things we are unable to do in our own strength. I have personally seen it over and over.

So, pray A LOT and implement these concepts and ideas as you have opportunity to.