Wouldn’t you resist and fight too?

“Mom keeps getting angry with dad because he keeps forgetting things.”
“My husband shouldn’t drive anymore.”
“My wife isnt eating enough.”
“My dad wont use his walker even though he keeps falling.”
“My mom keeps forgetting to take her medication.”

Why do our loved ones resist our efforts to help them stay safe? It is so frustrating to see them take so many unnecessary risks. They seem so defensive. What are they defending?

Dignity, Identity and Independence

They are defending their dignity, identity and independence. As family, our challenge is to help them stay safe, while at the same time respecting these core parts of who they are. How do we do that?

Firstly, put concerns about safety aside and think about their humanity – it is more important.  I recognize that putting safety aside is incredibly difficult.  At times, however, it may be the best, if not the only way forward.

We are all owed dignity. It is a basic human right. Think about the difficulties your loved one is experiencing (with their mobility or incontinence for example) and how that may threaten their dignity. Understand how that contributes to their resistance to do what others think is best for them.

We built our identity over a lifetime. We worked hard, took risks, and sacrificed to be a certain
type of person. We invested enormous emotional energy in ourselves and the things we value. As we age, a gap forms between our identity and our aging physical, emotional and cognitive ability to maintain that identity. We deny or resist that gap as long as we can. Think of how you define
yourself and imagine if age or illness started to erode that.

From the day we’re born we strive for independence. We parent our children to be independent adults. We consider their independence a sign of our success as parents. They become adults, then seniors and after 60 or 70 years as independent adults, many become a little dependant – and don’t like it one bit.

We are all likely to experience some of these threats to our dignity, identity and independence. How will you respond to:

  • Difficulty walking or navigating steps 
  • Difficulty with shoes and clothing 
  • Using canes and walkers 
  • Incontinence issues 
  • Declining memory 
  • Declining eyesight or hearing

How Can We Help Seniors Live with Dignity and Independence?

  1. Truly appreciate your loved one’s profound need for dignity, identity and independence. Seek to understand what they are experiencing. Feeling heard can make a big difference.
  2. Accept that as long as they are legally of sound mind, they get to make decisions about their life which critically includes the right to make bad decisions.
  3. Be concerned if they put others at risk. If you feel they shouldnt be driving, talk to them about it but dont judge – we let 16 year olds drive. Explain that as worried as you are for their safety, the road is shared and they may be putting others at risk. Talk to them about how you can help them navigate their needs without having to drive as much.
  4. Find opportunities for them to have an important role in your life. Give them a chance to feel proud of you and be an influencer in your life. If the relationship feels two-way, it validates them and their value.
  5. Look for creative ways to replace the devices that make them feel aged with solutions that don’t make them feel that way. When my father had significant mobility issues, he resisted using a cane, walker, or scooter. They made him feel diminished. He barely left home, and when we went to the cottage, he rarely left the building. We bought him a used golf cart. The next day he was the King of Kensington, giving people lifts and taking kids for joy rides. It was an amazing example of how we accept or reject a solution, not because of it’s functionality, but because of what it symbolizes. Look for golf cart” solutions for your loved one’s challenges.

I just saw Elton John’s Farewell concert in Toronto. We had great seats, so great, I could see Elton struggle in the dark to climb the stairs to the stage. He is 72 and has been through multiple lifetimes of experience, recent surgery and illness. I bet there is no shortage of people who told him enough is enough, you dont need to keep touring – or, dont climb the stairs, we can elevate you onto the stage. He climbed those stairs. He played 3 hours of outstanding music with his classic showmanship. We all fight to be the people we want to be and do the things we want to do. Then, maybe, something happens and we see things differently – and its unlikely because someone we love told us to change. It took Elton John prostate cancer, a deadly infection and being a father to see things differently. He did, and decided that this is his last tour – dignity, identity and independence intact.