It seems to me that one of the most difficult aspects of aging is accepting change. We all know that, as is often said, “Change is hard.” We are comfortable in that which is familiar, that which we understand and anything that “upsets our apple cart” or “rocks our boat” is difficult and unsettling. Whether in the workplace or our personal lives, the challenges are equally present.
As we look at aging and the care of older adults, the issue of change bubbles up on a regular basis. For an older adult, change impacts their sense of self, the life they live and the choices they make—even the ability to make those choices. No longer able to define themselves by the work that they do, older adults find themselves feeling a loss of identity, struggling to figure out “who am I” when I can no longer use my role as my identity.
Beyond that, of course, life begins to change for many as well. Big questions, that were never questions before, begin to arise. One of the first is often around continuing to drive. In our suburban, spread out world, losing access to the car keys makes everything so much more complicated. A simple trip to the grocery store becomes complex and the idea of spur-of-the-moment anything disappears. Both the older adult and their family wrestle with this one, knowing how significantly life is impacted by that one loss.
And, of course, other decisions begin to follow, some sooner than others based on the individual and their needs. Are they able to still live in their home? Have the stairs become too difficult? What about being alone, is that safe or can it be made safe?
As professionals in the aging field, we watch these questions get played out in families every day. Families wonder if they are doing the right thing, they grieve over the loss of the person “as they used to be,” they are sometimes in disagreement among themselves about the right outcomes, all of which just makes the process even more difficult. The older adult, too, has a unique set of struggles as they start to see the losses in their life pile up, losses that create a “new normal,” not one that they ever wanted and not one they may be able to manage.
There are no magic answers to make this better. There are no secret formulas to slow down or stop the aging process (at least none that we know about so far). But one thing that can help is for caregivers to really stop and reframe the situation, to shift their perspective. Yes, there is nothing easy about feeling as if you have to “parent your parent.” But stopping and thinking about it, trying to see it through their eyes, may make the conversations easier and less fraught with tension. Before telling your loved one that it is time to “hand over the car keys,” take a moment and think about what kind of loss that represents for them and on how many levels. It’s not just the car, it is everything it represents—freedom, independence, choice, an active life—and think about how you might react if the tables were turned.
No simple solutions, no scripts to make the conversation easier—but starting from a place of empathy, reminding yourself of the individual that they have been, and still are, despite their age, working to understand—all of this can and does matter, all of it can and does help. Acknowledging that each loss for the older adult is, indeed, a loss will not “make it all better” but it can help healing to happen.