The rural community where my Mother grew up is saturated with extended family, and has been for several generations. As a family history buff, I enjoy looking at the old Federal census forms and seeing the names of ancestors filling pages, neighbors living in houses strung along a country road or tucked into the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania.
The big farmhouses of those times had a “sick room” off the kitchen, where an ill loved one could be looked after, close to the family’s heart and hearth. With cousins, nieces and nephews, and sons and daughters all in the area, there was help to be had if and when it was needed.
Even so, it’s interesting to see that some Elders of very advanced years lived with unrelated folks as a “boarder.”
Nowadays our culture continues to see the “best” option for care of our Elders as that which is provided in their own homes, or living with close relatives. Moving someone into a nursing home is seen by many as a personal and family failure.
This has always bothered me. While we have a long way to go to change the institutional model of long term care, I do not agree that this represents failure.
I’ve seen many Elders blossom in nursing homes and assisted living.
One beautiful woman I knew came to live in the nursing home because arthritis had crippled her hands badly and left her unable to get around without a wheelchair. Once she moved into the nursing home where I worked, she was able to explore her lifelong dream to be a painter. The Activities staff provided her with supplies and a place to work, and she figured out a way to hold a brush in her gnarled fingers. The art she made was glorious! (And she felt very happy to have finally liberated her inner artist!).
I’ve also known many Elders in their own or a family member’s home who nevertheless suffered from the three plagues of Loneliness, Helpless and Boredom, as defined by Dr. Bill Thomas and The Eden Alternative ™.
These families are likely to feel guilty when they “have to” place their loved one.
We’ve seen much change in recent years, with families moving far from the family home, medical technology extending life (but not necessarily well-being), and two-earner couples. It’s no wonder family care partners feel overwhelmed!
I won’t rehash the demographics and statistics we all know so well, but I’d like to offer some thoughts from my years of experience working in long term care.
Don’t let “caretaking” overwhelm your relationship with the Elder. There are lots of people who can mop the floors, wash the linens, assist with bathing, and help an Elder living with frailty get to the bathroom. No one can have the special family bond with the Elder that you do. You can look at family photos and reminisce about the milestone events and precious small moments that comprise your family’s unique culture and history.
If you are a spouse or partner, your loving presence is irreplaceable.
If you’re so overcome with the tasks of caring, to the point that the relationship is suffering, please reconsider. Build a care partner team for your Elder and for yourself that will honor your loved one’s preferences and still ensure their daily needs are met in a loving and respectful way.
Consider that the local nursing home is where our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, are now working. Let them help with the care. You’ll find that some of these strangers will come to love your Elder and develop their own distinctive relationships with them.
You’ll also find that those young, strong backs can take on what feels burdensome, leaving you with the energy and resources to be present for your Elder in the way that only you can be.
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Lisa Kendall is a social work psychotherapist and clinical gerontologist, and amateur genealogist!
Please let us know your thoughts about Aging and Elderhood, and share your stories of how you’ve been able to widen the circles of support for your loved one and for yourself!