As we get older, it gets more difficult to do all the things we have done for ourselves most of our adult life. We all get older every second from the time we are born. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when an older person needs help living independently. Yet, it seems like it is “all of a sudden” when it happens.
We All Need Help
The first thing we have to establish is the most difficult. We all need help from each other. In 1624, John Donne wrote a poem called “No Man is an Island”. In it, he describes how we all need each other to live life fully. So since this is not a new idea, it shouldn’t be as difficult as it is to have a conversation with someone about what help is needed. We all love the idea that we are independent though and we take great pride in that idea. From the 2-year-old, “I got this, Gramma” to the 83-year-old, “I do not need you to tell me how to take my medications”, we all love the idea of independence.
These are difficult conversations to have. It is easier if they are already happening throughout adult life. Every conversation will be as different as every personality is.
What Does Living Independently Mean?
Holy Cow!! That is a tough question that changes constantly here at our house.
Our youngest daughter came into adulthood amid chronic migraines. Finding a job that was flexible enough has been very hard. Living independently for right now, means that our role has changed. She still lives in the same room, in the same house as she has since adolescence but we are now more like roommates and very good friends than parents and child. When a migraine strikes, we can help with important life functions like food and medications. We can provide support through the resulting anxiety and depression. Since we would make the house payment no matter how many folks lived here, we can offer room and board while she gets going down her life path. She is in charge of her own decisions about that life path.
For me as a working member of society, living independently means that I am constantly surrounded by people to help me with things that are too heavy or too hard to do myself. In return, I do what I can to help those that surround me.
Living independently to my grandfather meant something completely different. As a cantankerous widower, he carried all of his belongings in his car. He lived with one of his remaining 10 children until he wore out his welcome and then moved to the next child’s house. Since he had 10 children, it took long enough to get around to each again that he was forgiven and allowed to move in. I was just little when he passed away, but I enjoyed the time he spent at our home.
For most of the older people in my life, living independently has meant a lot of yelling at all the folks concerned from doctors to grown children far and near. In all of those cases, it took years to find solutions that were acceptable to anyone.
I want my sisters to know how much I love them and appreciate all that they did to help our Mom and Dad live independently. I lived too far away to be of much daily help. I tried to visit as often as possible and I called to visit very often. We all had those conversations with them about what their idea of independent living was.
For some older folks, living independently means living in assisted living or extended care facilities and doing what they can for themselves. Some older people prefer to live in their own home and have their helpers come to them. Making plans for our future works a lot better if someone knows what we want our independence to look like.
Living Independently is Messy
Life and learning in general is messy. When the 2-year-old tells me “I’ve got this”, I generally know it isn’t going to go the way I think it should. It is the same throughout our lives. No plan, no matter how well thought out, is going to run perfectly with no messes.
Living independently means that both the helper and the “helpee” have responsibilities. The helper needs to be consistent with what they are capable of doing and know when to back away and let it get messy. The helpee needs to ask for help with what they cannot do themselves, knowing that the job might not get done the exact way they would do it. Cooperation is vital! No plan is going to work perfectly, no matter how perfect the plan is.
Cameron’s mom lives in an apartment attached to our garage. This plan evolved from years of discussing options and yes, some yelling too. Her idea of living independently means living in her own space by herself. We know that because she told us. This plan has been frustrating for all parties involved. We all agree it is the best plan so we all deal with the frustrations.
When we check on her, she usually tells us how she is feeling. If she isn’t feeling well, it brings up the discussion of what she thinks we should do next.We all know that she won’t go to see the doctor until she decides it is time. That has made for some pretty scary experiences but living independently means that we allow people to make their own decisions even if they aren’t the decisions we would make. It is also really important to know when it is an emergency.
Some Simple Ways to Help
There are some simple things that can be done to help an older person living alone. Here are some that we have found.
- We really appreciate it when a friend or family member calls or stops to visit Cameron’s mom. It livens up her day and gives her something new to talk about for days afterward. It gives us other interactions to help watch for illness or depression or anxiety.
- Ask an older person for help. Life is about interactions, the more the merrier. When we don’t feel useful in society anymore, we stop thriving. If someone practices a skill you want to learn, ask them to tell you about it, even if they can’t practice it anymore.
- Winters are very difficult. Falling is more dangerous for an older person than a younger person. More help might be needed during these months. Someone who can take out their own garbage and get their own mail in good weather might need help during times of snow and ice.
- It helps so much to look outside and see someone taking care of chores that are difficult. Our neighbor has used his Bobcat to help me clear the snow out of my drive ever since Cameron started working away from home. Shoveling snow and mowing lawns are a great blessing to older homeowners.
- We do as much driving as possible for Mom. We coordinate our shopping with hers at least once a week so she doesn’t feel like she is bothering us for help. When we are running errands, we stop in to see if we can take care of some for her while we are out.
- Meals are a big deal. Even when someone is quite capable of warming up a can of soup, it helps to have a plate of dinner arrive every once in a while.
Other Help for Independent Older People
When we need medical advice, we go see a health professional. When we need legal advice, we go see a legal professional. While helping other adults in our lives, older or younger, we have needed the help of both of these professions from time to time. It is important to have legal documents in place that allow each person to function in their role. What those documents are depend on where you live.
Sometimes it is important that one adult accompanies another adult to see their health professional. There are times when vital information will be exchanged and another set of ears will help in both directions.
There are agencies that give help to older people in maintaining their independence. As I researched, I found this link https://www.aginginplace.org/10-resources-for-living-independently-as-a-senior/ to provide a basic list found in the United States. We have not used all of these resources ourselves and there are many more that are worth looking in to.
They need to be part of the ongoing conversation that happens before they are needed. Things can change on a daily basis.
And Then What?
When Cameron’s Dad was in the end stages of dementia, we all made the decision to take care of him in his home with familiar surroundings, until his death. A health care professional finally pointed us in the direction of hospice care. What a blessing those people were in our lives. Other older members of our family have enjoyed living in care facilities when living alone was not an option any longer.
As part of the ongoing conversations a very important question to discuss is “What happens when the plan isn’t working anymore”? Helping others stay independent is a wonderful life. Keep in mind things change constantly!
Louise · February 2, 2019 at 1:04 pm
Thank you for the excellent suggestions. I am a retired nurse living in a senior retirement apartment complex where all my neighbors are struggling with independence issues. So many ways that I can be helpful and thoughtful without intruding.!
Rhonda · February 2, 2019 at 3:04 pm
Louise, Thank you for your comment. I know that there are so many more ways to help those around us. I hope you will comment again later to let us know some other ways you have come up with.
Sandy Scott · February 6, 2019 at 10:28 am
Thank you for sharing this. It is very well written and very much appreciated!
I am the care taker for my parents. At the same time, the allow me the dignity of traversing a delicate life circumstance in a safe place of my own (aka as being their cellar dweller) I need them… they needed me.
You offer some very sound advice.
Rhonda · February 7, 2019 at 7:55 am
Thank you for your comment. What a brilliant solution to two intense problems! We find that maintaining privacy for both parties is kind of tricky sometimes. How do you handle checking on each other without actually interrupting someone’s day?