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I admit it. I have been distracted lately as I have been watching my mother age before my eyes. You see just two short years back my mother was a vibrant, active member of her community. The church organist for two local churches, choir master for her community choir, and a support to other ageing people in the community. Then suddenly something changed – and her world started to shrink.

As I have watched mum and how she interacts with the world I couldn’t help think about the psychology of ageing. When we see old people, we often forget their lifetime of experiences, attitudes and beliefs. We just see them and their behaviour in a present day vacuum – forgetting what it took to get them there.

What do I mean? Well … think back to when a child is first born. Each milestone they achieve is met with joy and celebration. The first time they learn they have fingers and can wave them. The first time they get up on wobbly legs and start to walk. The first time they can use a spoon by themselves. Successfully using a “big boy or big girl” toilet. Being able to make their own sandwich.  First day at school. Getting your license … and so on.

Each milestone is met by a huge upwelling of pride and a sense of achievement. Photos are taken, and the adoring family audience applauds.

Ageing is this in reverse. I call ageing “the unknowing”. Suddenly things that you have done all of your life and which were a major achievement at the time – are instantly unknown. You no longer know how to walk on steady feet. You no longer can drive safely. Decisions that took seconds now take days. Adult nappies join your grocery list along with a growing list of medications.

But unfortunately with the body’s unknowing, if the mind is still sound then the sense of loss is profound. This time there is no pride – there is no achievement – there is no adoring family applauding in the wings. This time there is only shame, embarrassment and frustration for what used to be so easy.

Is it any wonder that our ageing people “fight the signs of ageing”.  Why do we wonder why someone doesn’t want to accept meals on wheels or to go to a nursing home. There is no celebration – only loss. That is why the words dignity and respect are the most important words when you deal with elderly people and clients.

My mother is in this fight at the moment. She went back into hospital yesterday after yet another fall and needs full-time care – but she has yet to accept this fatal blow to her pride and sense of who she is and who she was. We will not push her – just like parents can not push a child to walk. She will make this decision in her own time and in her own way.  We need to respect her timing no matter how hard or how much we worry – it is her time and her decision.

But gee it is difficult not to try to take over to make it easier for her. Patience is not just a lesson for the ageing person – but it is also one for the children of the ageing person. To learn to wait – to learn to allow time – to learn to support without taking over. Patience was never my strong point – I guess this is something I will be learning more of in the coming months. I need to take a leaf out of mum’s neighbour’s books – their constant gentle support and respect for mum has been wonderful to watch. They are the true heroes in this story.

Why this post? Well, the next time you look at an elderly person – consider the unknowing and remember the loss. It may help to understand why they are crabby, frustrated or zoned out. These are coping mechanisms. Your role is to understand this and help take the sting out of the issue as much as possible. After all – we will all be in that situation in years to come.

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