It has often been said that aging is like returning to a second childhood. We all laugh about that at a certain age, of course, but it’s more true and less humourous when we come to the realization that what made us children was our dependence on others.
As a teacher, I was constantly reinforcing with my young students that there was no greater satisfaction than being in control. I emphasized that the real purpose of a good education was to create options from which one could pick a rewarding and financially secure career and future. What young person doesn’t dream of being able to take full control of their life and make all of their own choices?
If the giddiness of choice and control explains the enthusiasm and excitement of youth, then it should come as no surprise that the loss of choice and control explains the challenges of optimism in the elderly. This is not to imply that all the elderly become pessimistic any more than we can say that all youth were optimistic and happy. People come in all temperaments at all ages.
Still, aging has its challenges when it comes to looking forward with enthusiasm, particularly for those who begin to lose control of their physical or mental health and who, despite the intervention of medical and other support systems, simply can’t view the future in a positive light. Often it is not the condition itself, or the side effects of the treatment for the condition as much as it is the understanding that either the condition isn’t going away or it’s just one more in a line of issues that tax one’s ability to live a reasonable quality of life.
When my father learned of his illness, a form of cancer in the blood that causes an excessive growth of immature white blood cells and destroys the body’s ability to produce healthy red blood cells, it wasn’t so much the disease description that bothered him as it was the fact that, as he weakened, he was unable to do the things he wanted to do. Bit by bit, he felt his control slipping away until, at some point, it became obvious that he couldn’t even care for himself, much less contribute to the support network of others he’d always been a part of.
Where a toddler is happy to have things done for him, a proud adult is often shamed by the dependence on others, doubly so if it has anything to do with personal hygiene.
In my father’s case, his greatest fight was not about getting better, but about maintaining his personal dignity. A ‘win’ day for him was a day that he took complete care of himself from sun-up to sundown. We talked about this when I first went to help him out this past summer and he commented that he’d rather fail over and over again at trying to do something himself than just give in and let others do things for him. To that end, I challenged him constantly to get up and go somewhere with me or do something that was slipping away from him and I stood back, often, and let him struggle a bit rather than jumping in and doing it all for him. As embarrassed as he was to struggle from time to time, he was always pleased to finally get it done on his own.
I must admit I found it very difficult at times to watch his struggles and the temptation was great to just take over, but rather than seeing it as help, I knew he would see it as another loss of control. I learned a lot of patience and developed a great empathy for his condition as well as pride in his determination during his battles with some of the simplest tasks you might imagine.
The win was as rewarding for me as it was for him.
Graham Hookey writes about education, parenting and eldercare. Email him at email@example.com.