Keeping the Elderly Relevant

Posted on November 26, 2012


Every holiday season, and in some other seasons too, we will make the traditional pilgrimages to our relatives’ homes, and within a couple of days, we are reminded of why we moved out in the first place.  You know what they say:  fish and house guests stink after three days.

On this year’s Thanksgiving odyssey to a couple of different family homesteads, I observed that one big cause of the “odors” in our family is the way our elderly parents constantly buzz around, repeatedly asking if we have had enough to eat, offering to fix something, perhaps you might need more towels or blankets, and are you hungry yet (again)?   The 50-somethings are exasperated.  The 20-somethings are exasperated.  We just want to relax and visit.  We are capable of taking care of ourselves.  The food, the towels, the blankets, are all already more than enough.  Too much, really.

Bad enough that the things we really miss about home – our pets, say, or the ability to lie on the sofa in ratty pajamas and watch our guilty-pleasure TV shows uninterrupted – are not going to be available on a visit like this.  But no sooner does a guest start to show a casual interest in what’s playing on the TV in the background, than the elderly parent will swoop in with the TV remote:  “Oh, you can change that if you want to.  We don’t have to keep it on that.  Is it loud enough?  Here, would you rather see the news?  Sports?  We have a good movie channel…”   And so it goes.  The visitor soon feels smothered, and what little relaxation might have been had quickly evaporates in a flurry of bustling good intentions.  By the third day, it does stink, and whether it is the guest or the host who is doing the stinking, it’s time to head home for a few more months.

But then I have to remind myself of the elderly person’s viewpoint, a worthwhile exercise since – if I am lucky – I will end up there within several decades (I keep telling myself I won’t, but math and observational evidence seem to indicate otherwise).

We younger folks have jobs, or are raising kids, or maybe we are volunteering somewhere.  We have relevance; we make valuable contributions; people depend on us; we have our place in the world; we feel needed.  No one wants to feel unneeded, irrelevant, or worse:  unwanted, or a burden.  Yet that is the fate of many elderly people, who are generally retired, empty-nesters, perhaps even shut-ins or residents of assisted-living facilities.   Who needs them?  Who wants them?  How very lonely that must be.  All of their life’s achievements fall away to nothing, once the moment comes that they do nothing for anyone; the moment that they become irrelevant to the world, and unneeded even by their loved ones.  They are warehoused, with one foot in the grave, just… waiting.

My Dad, in his final years, used to say, simply:  “I wish there was something I could do for you.”  I think he was proud that we turned out to be independent and capable, but in a way, he was troubled by what that meant about him.  He was retired; his kids were grown; not only was he no longer needed, but he began to need us.  He gradually became dependent, where previously he had been independent, and more:  he had been the one depended upon.   “I’ve lived too long,” he lamented.

Our other relatives are not so self-aware as this, perhaps, or not so blunt.  So they buzz about, driving us crazy, but we should make an effort to keep in mind that they are only doing what they still can do, to stay useful.  To be needed in some way.  To be relevant.  To matter.  It increases their happiness and quality of life, so it shouldn’t be too much for us exasperated younger folks to put on our game faces and make the effort to enjoy the flurry of bustling good intentions, while we still can.

P.S.:  If you haven’t seen the Pixar animated movie Up, Lila  highly recommends it.  A young boy grows old, seeing all that mattered to him falling away, until a crazy adventure brings new and lasting meaning into his life.  A happy tear-jerker.