One of the most unfortunate consequences of growing older is a loss of independence. Physical and mental decline can make it difficult for seniors to take care of themselves or manage their own lives. The solution, in many situations, involves senior living arrangements, from in-home care assistance to assisted living or nursing home facilities. However, while these arrangements can help seniors manage day-to-day tasks that they could no longer handle on their own-getting around, bathing, dressing, preparing meals, and more-they don't necessarily address the deep sadness and frustration that can come with a loss of independence.
Different Types of Independence Loss
To understand how seniors feel as they lose facets of their independence, you need to consider what it is they are losing. A loss of mobility, for instance, can be problematic for seniors on numerous levels. On one level, a senior can be frustrated over mobility problems simply because they can't get around as well as they once did. It's alarming to have difficulty with climbing the stairs, walking short distances without assistance, standing up, or getting out of bed. Seniors are used to being able to do these things themselves, so losing that independence can be both a logistical issue and a blow to seniors' self-worth and confidence.
On another level, a loss of mobility can also impact a senior's social life. Perhaps he used to go for walks with friends, but can't anymore. Maybe a sport such as tennis or badminton was a big part of her social life that has now been taking away. A loss of mobility can also impact a senior's ability to attend parties or events, or even to go out to dinner. As a result, loss of independence for seniors can mean seeing their friends and family less often than they used to, which can in turn lead to sadness or depression.
Loss of mobility is not the only issue that can lead to independence loss for seniors. Memory loss issues, vision or hearing problems, or even diminishment of stamina can affect a senior's ability to live alone, drive, prepare meals, keep a house clean and well-maintained, and more. The loss of a spouse can also put a senior in a position where independent living may become more difficult and less safe.
How a Senior Might Be Feeling During a Loss of Independence
To help your elderly loved ones cope with a loss of independence, you need to understand how they are feeling at this difficult time. The truth is, different people react to losing their independence in different ways. Some will feel angry or frustrated that their bodies are betraying them. These individuals may lash out at you or other loved ones in resentment, and might even blame you for taking away their independence. Don't worry: these feelings of anger, betrayal, and blame are normal, and will pass.
Other seniors will simply feel sad or afraid as they become less independent. They will feel vulnerable and helpless due to their inability to take care of themselves, and may start to lean on family members much more than they once did. In these situations, the resentment and blame discussed above is replaced with dependence.
Finally, some seniors will simply feel confused about why they are losing independence. They won't understand why they can't do all the things they used to, or why you or a caregiver is trying to assist them with simple things including getting up or cooking meals. Seniors in this boat will often try to reject care or help, or act as if they don't need it. Guilt may also be a contributing factor here. Indeed, a senior may feel guilty about not being able to help herself, and may reject offers of help simply because she doesn't want to be a burden.
The Keys to Coping
Regardless of whether your elderly loved one is feeling anger, fear, confusion, or guilt during a loss of independence, the keys to helping that person cope with their loss are more or less the same. Perhaps the most important of these is patience. It can be frustrating to have a once independent loved one suddenly feeling dependent on you for everything, or to have a parent or grandparent lashing out at you for something that isn't your fault. Still, you need to recognize where the senior in your life is coming from-loss of independence due to aging is one of the hardest parts of any life-and give that person time to come to terms with the change they are going through.
Another key to helping a senior cope with a loss of independence is to help them hold on to the things in their life that they love most. For instance, if a parent or grandparent has lost mobility and needs to be moved into an assisted living home, they are already probably saying goodbye to the familiarity of the house they've known for years. Helping them to keep in touch with other grounding foundations in their life-namely, relationships-can help to lessen the blow. Scheduling frequent visits with family and friends, or making a point to call your loved one regularly, can go a long way.
Finally, just try talking with your loved one to help them understand why this is happening. Studies have shown that many older adults fear losing independence more than they fear death. As a result, just having a conversation where you give your senior loved one a chance to open up about their fears or frustrations can do wonders. In this conversation, you can reassure the senior that loss of independence is a fact of aging and not a sign of failure or even an indicator of imminent mortality. You can also explain to your loved one that you can't always be there to provide the help they need, and bring up the idea of in-home care or other senior living arrangements.
Bottom line, this conversation is your chance for you and your elderly loved one to understand each other, so set aside plenty of time to work through everything that needs to be discussed. Ideally, a good, constructive discussion will get everything out on the table and make it easier for the senior in your life to come to terms with their loss of independence and carry on regardless.