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Ask Kindred Place - How can I cope with moving from an active life to a less active life? And how can my family members help?

This month's Ask Kindred Place segment addresses the topic of Aging. Clinical Programs Services Director, Patricia Maynard, DVAC Program Director, Robert Holdford, and therapist Rachael DeSaussure discuss how to cope with aging.

Last month we covered the topic of Relationships. Did you miss that conversation or want to read it again? You can do so here.

I am 79 years old; after a very active life, I am finding aging difficult. How can I cope? And how can my family members help?

Robert: As you age, it’s important to try to stay active, which is difficult because it’s easy for older and retired people to become isolated. To add to that difficulty, many older adults don’t want to be out and about doing things because it’s not safe to do so with the pandemic. 

Rachael: What could be some options for being active and social without putting yourself in danger right now with the pandemic?

Patricia: Staying connected in relationships is vital as you age. You need to find ways to add meaning through connections and getting engaged. There are churches and community organizations that have activities for older adults to do safely. If you’re a part of a community or church organization, reach out to see what activities they are currently offering. 

Robert: Many organizations now have websites or Facebook pages where they will post about upcoming events, so if you’re internet-savvy, you can check those pages weekly to stay connected and up to date. 

Calling people on the telephone or making sure that someone is calling you is also crucial. 

Patricia: Right, think of calling a family member or friend daily either with a phone call or a video call so you can see the people you’re talking to. If you are in good health, you need to be proactive about seeking connections and creating new meanings in your life. You have to make a concerted effort to seek out relationships and seek out social activities despite the pandemic.

Rachael: We should be clear about what active means. Does active mean running a mile every day? Does it mean doing the crossword every day? What is active for an older adult?

Patricia: Taking a 20-30 minute walk every other day is sufficient for most older adults. Being active can also mean reading for one hour, crocheting, or doing crossword or sudoku puzzles. I encourage older adults to explore other avenues and find new interests, hobbies, or activities that appeal to them.  

Rachael: Taking a walk is a great way to stay active, but some people might not live in a safe neighborhood where that’s accessible to them; an alternative could be to drive to a safe park where you can walk. Even a simple task like walking to the end of the street to get the mail could help you become more active.

Patricia: Think of the things that you always wanted to do after retirement and the things that you can safely do; start with one thing at a time and see if it can fit with your new reality and do it. 

Pick up a new hobby – learn a new craft, subject, or language; learn how to play the piano or the guitar; volunteer at a soup kitchen or food bank; foster a dog or cat through a local rescue organization. Start engaging in different things that you didn’t have time for before and make new friends.

Robert: It’s important to try to find connections—old and new—because when you get to be a certain age, it’s harder to make friends; you need to be able to find ways to make friends in a new way in the new world that we’re living in.

Right, and technology is here to stay, and some older adults have difficulty using or navigating it. They need someone to teach them how to use technology so that they can reach out to family and friends and watch their grandchildren play. That simple activity could bring a lot of joy to them; they can spend half an hour just watching. This is a practical way someone can add meaning and joy to their day.

The best way for older adults, those who are suddenly not as active, to stay active is by maintaining routines where they get themselves moving and engaged with their world and their families and friends. 

Rachael: I agree with all that, especially having the social support and those connections. Something I’ve noticed that works well with my relatives is having some structure in their day. That alone can make a huge difference.
When you go from working 9 to 5, you have that structure in your life. When you’re not doing that anymore, you need to have a plan for each day so you’re not waking up wondering what you’re going to do—even having a simple schedule where you read for an hour at 1:00 pm, or you’re going to go to the grocery store today. 

Robert: The idea of planning your day—having a schedule that you can follow and being more intentional about what you’re doing—is so important. 

Rachael: You should also plan your meals within that schedule. It can be easy to go about your day without being hungry, and then the next thing you know, it’s 6:00 pm, and you haven’t eaten anything all day. Having a schedule that includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner with tasks and activities to do in between—read a book, walk outside, etc.—is beneficial. Having that structure is important, or else the days are just going to blur together, and that could lead to depression.

Robert: A way that adult children or grandchildren can assist with older adults is by helping them develop a schedule and checking in to make sure they’re sticking to the schedule. It could even be a quick call or text saying, “Hey, it’s almost 3:00 pm. Are you getting ready for your walk?”

Rachael: My grandma has a set schedule where she does the same thing, more or less, each day, and she has set free time when you can call; this helps family members support her and not overwhelm her because they know which day and time each family member is going to call to check-in.

Robert: We also need to be aware of when seniors need help. Sometimes when you hear physical complaints, that might really be depression, and depression might really be pain, so we have to listen.

Rachael: That’s a great point, Robert. Children and grandchildren who are helping older adults need to listen and be compassionate when listening. It can be easy to say, “well, of course, your back hurts, you’re 80,” and then dismiss the pain. Taking the time to listen and pay attention to determine if this is actual pain or depression, or is there something I can do; do they need something that I can offer? 

Patricia: Adult children can quickly become impatient with their aging parents. Sometimes people tend to think their aging parents are always complaining, always have something wrong, or are always repeating themselves. They don’t pay attention that these could be mental health concerns because older adults might not be able to express that they’re lonely; they’re depressed; their mood isn’t the same as it used to be. Most of the time, they don’t want to be a burden or bother their children. 

Our irritability or frustration with them can make them more confused and not want to reach out for help. We need to be really compassionate and careful with them.  

Rachael: On the one side, it’s helping out and doing extra things, but there’s also the flip side of allowing people to have their independence and do things on their own. They can be alone without having to entertain their adult children because they think they need to take care of their parents, which I understand, but let them do their own thing, like taking their coffee cup from the living room to the kitchen because they can.

Robert: But there are some things adult children can do to help their parents. Sometimes it’s just little things like cooking occasionally or readjusting the thermostat on the water heater so you can help eliminate scalds since it’s harder for seniors to recognize the temperature differences.

Rachael: And for adult kids, helping their parents and being patient when teaching those things because it can be frustrating when you have to repeat yourself 100 times, and they keep clicking the wrong button and all of those things that go along with learning something new. 

And listening if that’s not something they want, then not forcing that on them, not thinking that you know best for them, and trying to force them into something that they would rather be in person and watch their grandkids play versus watching them virtually.

Patricia: That goes back to what Robert said—we need to listen to the elderly and allow them to tell us what they want. What will give them meaning, what will help them, what will make them feel happy throughout the day?

Robert: Right, there needs to be a 2-way conversation. The seniors need to try to tell the relatives what things they’re concerned about or the things they would like you to watch for.

Patricia: As we wrap up our conversation, I want to make everyone aware that elder abuse, whether by a family member or caregiver, is prevalent in our community. We need to recognize the signs of elder abuse—withdrawing, changes in their appearance, weight loss—and reach out and help those we suspect might be being abused. 

The National Institute on Aging states the following could be signs of abuse or neglect.

You may notice the person:
•    Stops taking part in activities he or she enjoys
•    Looks messy, with unwashed hair or dirty clothes
•    Has trouble sleeping
•    Loses weight for no reason
•    Becomes withdrawn or acts agitated or violent
•    Has unexplained bruises, burns, cuts, or scars
•    Develops bed sores or other preventable conditions

We must pay attention to those things and give a voice to the elderly to advocate for themselves so that their needs are being met, they’re not being abused, and that they can ask for help when they do need help.

And as mental health professionals, we say to anyone who is lonely and depressed or has a sense of dread and uncertainty, please reach out to a mental health professional. If you ever need someone to talk to, we’re here for you at Kindred Place.

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