Grandparents – Aging with dignity

By Wendy Johnstone
October 8, 2009

Connect Kids to Grandparents -  Living Legacy“I’m standing in line with my three year old and the little old lady ahead of me pulls out her change purse and dumps a thousand pennies on the counter!”

“I’m at a 4-way stop and the old man across from me can barely see me through his trifocals over his steering wheel.”

“My grandmother tells me the same story over and over again – and that’s just over tea!”

“She really shouldn’t be shovelling her walk – she’s 88 years old! Why doesn’t she just pay someone to do it for her?”

“I can’t believe my Dad still doesn’t use email – I keep telling him to ‘get with the times’”

“I don’t know understand why my Mother just won’t use the walker we bought her. It will only help her walk steadier and for longer distances!”

Our society embraces being young. Although the Baby Boomers are slowly trying to change this view, the bottom line is our Canadian society remains very industrial. We still tend to value people for what they do and produce in the work force. As a result, we tend to minimize – or overlook – significant past and current contributions which our grandparents and aging loved ones have made to family, community and society through raising children, work, volunteering and in paying taxes.

The real impact is the message we send to our children – seniors are different than themselves – resulting in a disconnect between generations. Our younger generations don’t see their elders as human beings or key contributors to community. And more importantly, unless we consider ourselves a senior, we have no firsthand experience of what’s it like to age. As a result, aging tends to be seen as a negative and we build our own attitudes based on those assumptions and myths.

I challenge you to take the Aging Quiz on the Ontario Senior Secretariat website. It takes about two minutes to complete and gives you an earmark of your knowledge and a sense of your own values and beliefs around aging.

Understanding Loss

Loss is the experience of parting with an object, person, belief or relationship that we value. Losses can be minor or major, depending on how the person perceives the loss. Loss can be tangible (actual or physical), such as a death, chronic illness, loss of a body part/physical abilities or changes in physical health. Or, loss can be intangible and sometimes less obvious (psychological, or perceptions of prestige, power, dreams or plans).

Younger generations typically have more physical energy and a sense of control to move on after experiencing losses. Seniors though find it more difficult to cope with loss, simply because they can’t be regained or replaced. As we age, the magnitude of loss can often feel very overwhelming and motivate seniors to hang on to what they have: independence, control and leaving a legacy.

Think for a moment about how loss effects people. Most of us – at some point in life – are going to experience the following:

Loss of physical strength be it from a chronic disease or loss of mobility

Loss of peer group: siblings, spouse, friends

Loss of family or work role: as we age, our role within our family and society changes – usually not for the better.

Loss of identity: think about your Dad, who spent 40 years working in an industry and providing for his family and now at 60 years he retires to what? What have you invested in your identity?

Loss of a family home: although the majority of seniors still live in their home, a percentage of aging loved one often move to downsize, other be closer with family or they need more support in an assisted or long term care facility

Often these losses happen in a very short period of time and compound the losses even further. This is why sometimes our parents, or grandparents, seem grumpy or we think they complain too much! Additionally, sometimes our aging loved ones are worried about “being a burden” or they experience a sense of not wanting to “upset the family” by beginning to talk about these feelings openly.

What binds generations and people together as human beings, regardless of their age, is that they all will have to deal in some way with losses of many types throughout their lives. While we may not all experience the same type of loss, rebuilding our lives and relationships after a loss is a universal challenge that we all must face. Most people who are experiencing a loss or change want to talk about their feelings, concerns, fears, hopes and dreams. Even if these are expressed as “life isn’t working out the way I wanted it to,” there is immense value in being able to acknowledge these changes and what they mean for your parent, or grandparent, and those around them, such as family or friends.

Next time your Mom, grandparent or aging neighbour opens the door to their loss, invite them in to stay for dinner.

I know, I know, you probably feel you don’t have anything to whip up or you are worried about burning supper. But it’s not about the meal. The only ingredients you need for this supper is time, good listening ears and respecting each other’s values and beliefs.

I’m going to leave you with this beautiful poem, The Pianist by Carolyn J. Fairweather Hughes:

Gnarled fingers of hand
that were once beautiful
fondle the yellow keys.
When no one is listening,
she randomly y strikes
a few dissonant notes.
Sometimes, I have to turn away
to keep from weeping
at her altered state.
But then, I see
the grey, wrinkled face smile
as chords, precise and graceful.

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“You are amazing! What I tried to do in 2 months, you did in 1 week. You’ve helped us navigate the system, made sense of Mom’s disease, and gave back her independence and control. Thank you for making such a difference in Mom’s life and giving us, her family, complete peace of mind.”

– Mike G., Nanaimo, BC

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