Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. -Oscar Wilde
Many people these days—especially if they are Baby Boomers or members of the Sandwich Generation—feel that older people appear incredibly selfish, i.e. demanding, and self-focused. Baby Boomers often become caregivers to their aging parent(s), while those in the Sandwich Generation are not only taking care of their own children, but also become caregivers for aging parents or relatives. No matter which group you belong to, being a care recipient or a caregiver is a tough job!
Let’s explore the role of the elder first. Today’s seniors, also known as the Greatest Generation, devoted their energies to raising us, to fighting in wars or battles (World War II, Korea and Vietnam), combatting the Cold War and helping to build this great country. In their lifetimes, much has changed: technology, social structures, employment, and social security. Much of what was accepted as a “given” then is no longer available to younger generations.
Now in their late 70s or 80s or older, elders generally experience diminishing physical capacity– they can no longer climb ladders to paint a house or clean a window; hearing and vision loss is common; medical, housing and basic need costs have soared; their social interaction may be limited to a single caregiver, an employee of an assisted living facility, or family members who may not be interested in or capable of helping their parent or relative. This results in elders feeling a loss of control over their own lives—they might be unable to drive, cope with paying bills, keep up with meal preparation and/or basic housekeeping or yard work, and instead find themselves dependent on a stranger or family member.
Long considered the “bootstrap” generation who found a way to pick themselves up and keep going no matter what life events occurred, the elder may now be at a point where s/he is unable to perform those tasks that they had done so often before. It may be extremely difficult for such an elder to “ask” for help, and to be overly critical when help is offered or provided. Often, the criticism is less about any real dissatisfaction with the help, but more about the sense of helplessness, dependence, and frustrating physical and mental limitations old age imposes on us all.
Elderly parents may prefer to ask for specific help primarily from those whom they trust intimately–a child or children who live closest to them. When possible, sharing those responsibilities among siblings can help reduce the strain of caregiving. As the elder’s needs and infirmities increase—at the same time as the caregiver-child’s work, relationship and family demands escalate—stress, frustration, anger and fear may erupt on all sides. During these times, the elderly person may have to “take a back seat” to other events in their caregiver’s life, which in turn could result in the elder feeling unappreciated or isolated. During these times, the elder may become more vocal, insistent and demanding.
Caregivers, usually family members, may experience similar helplessness, a sense of obligation, and frustration with the time involved to take care of themselves and their family while taking on an elder’s care as well. Caregivers usually find themselves running from one task to the next, without enough time to rest, relax or decompress. On one hand, caregivers understand the need to help their aged parents or relatives, but the daily demands of life may overwhelm them. If the elder is in a nursing home or assisted living facility, the caregiver’s role, while somewhat lessened, is not completely absolved of responsibility. Plus, many of the caregiver’s social roles—employee, church member, parent, sibling, neighbor, etc.—are also still largely in effect, whereas this becomes less important for the elder.
Dr. Bruce Nystrom adds, “Elders don’t care that much anymore about social convention or sociability. If they want to go ride a motorcycle they will because they want to and they can…nothing stands in their way like it may have in years past, such as parenting, working for a living, not giving the neighbors something to gossip about.”
Dr. Nystrom continues: “As people age and near the end of their life, they may begin the slow, gradual process of withdrawing their emotional investment in many people and possessions (objects) and begin to focus on a few that become favored. They seem to care less about what others think about them or trying to please others. They tend to have a strong relationship with their independence and don’t want to lose that or be told that they can no longer live at home, drive, cook, pay their bills, go to the store alone, garden, etc. Yet they may also want others to perform what they feel are mundane activities–like changing light bulbs for them.” In addition, Dr. Nystrom notes that “having someone change your lightbulb for you is not sacrificing an iota of independence. Staying at home amongst familiar possessions, remembrances, and securities has a strong appeal.”
So, what helps? There is often so much emotion (and exhaustion!) on both sides of the equation that it helps to address and reduce that first. Clear, constant communication and compromise between the elder and caregiver is necessary to make this a successful relationship for both parties. Dr. Molly Allen points out, “It comes down to boundaries and identifying (as the caregiver) that your elder person probably has a confusing mix of feelings, a loss of abilities, and possibly some cognitive slippage that contributes to the elder sometimes asking or demanding things that would have been completely out of character for them years earlier. As the caregiver it is important to often take a deep breath, silently outline what are the critical ‘needs’, and what are ‘wants’ on the elder’s part, and calmly tell the elder what will and won’t be possible. It often means acknowledging the feelings behind the request or demand, without giving into a long-winded and one-sided discussion of why or why not it is unreasonable to come change a lightbulb at 11:00. Don’t get guilted into doing anything – act on the behalf of the elder because you want to, or it is truly the right thing to do, not because the elder will be mad if you don’t cater to a whim.”
While Oscar Wilde deftly described part of what it means to become elderly and dependent on the kindness of strangers or relatives, he didn’t relate the trials and tribulations of the other side of the coin. For as Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter has said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.”
Sources: Dr. Bruce Nystrom, Dr. Molly Allen, US News & World Report, Huffington Post