By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published February 22, 2018
“No matter our age, we all strive for and enjoy independence. From the time we are born, our parents teach us how to care for ourselves until we reach adulthood. Then we begin the process of teaching our own children the value of doing things for themselves. Success, happiness and other life achievements are often the result of doing things on our own. Independence is instilled in us throughout life and the desire to be independent does not diminish with age. If anything, it becomes more important to seniors.”
Deon Melchior, comfortkeepers.com
As we age, we begin to experience new realities. We can’t run or walk as fast as we did in the past. We can’t remember phone numbers nearly as well. Everything that we pick up seems to be heavier. We tend to nap rather easily. We enjoy an evening at home reading, relaxing or engaged in a favorite hobby rather than going out to dinner or a night on the town. We can’t hit the golf ball like we did just a few years ago or run down a tennis lob that sails over our head. We squirrel away reading glasses all over the house. We don’t do well driving at night. We look forward to visits from the grandkids, but down deep we are relieved to see them leave so we can resume our empty nest solitude. In short, there are a growing number of things that we just don’t do quite as well physically and mentally.
Then there are new things that suddenly show up … like wrinkles. Where did all that extra skin come from anyway? For some, it’s the gradual shaping of a “man belly” or a widening of the posterior. Gray hair or no hair or color of the month. Gradual shrinking as the body settles. A medicine cabinet full of prescriptions and supplements. A change in appetite, eating less except for the craving late at night for a chocolate sundae. More frequent visits to the doctor and dentist to maintain our aging bodies and dentures. I believe the actress Bette Davis put it best when she said, “Growing old ain’t for sissies!”
There’s also another reality that invades our wellbeing—it is a new type of worry—fear of the loss of physical and mental capabilities. This new type of worry is triggered by our awareness of a gradual lessening of our body and mind skills. Our tendency to worry intensifies as we age because most seniors have more time during the day to devote to worrying.
In a recent national survey by Home Instead Senior Care, several thousand seniors were asked to identify the things they worry about most or fear as they grow older. Ninety percent felt the number one worry was the loss of independence. Here are the top 10 worries the survey revealed: 1) loss of independence, 2) declining health, 3) running out of money, 4) not being able to live at home, 5) death of a spouse or other close family member, 6) inability to manage the activities of daily living, 7) not being able to drive, 8) isolation or loneliness, 9) strangers caring for you and 10) fear of falling or being incapacitated.
One might wonder why there were no spiritual issues included in the listing—for instance, a greater awareness of our eventual end of life and our desire to do whatever we can to ensure our eternal salvation. I suspect that the survey focused more on practical fears and worries.
Even though a stronger attention to our spiritual life was not on the top 10 list of fears and worries, it is a subconscious reality that most seniors deal with daily.
Phases of independence
Perhaps the best way to view the issue of independence is to visit one of the many senior residential facilities that offer multiple levels of senior living: independent, assisted living and total care. The independent living quarters are much like apartment living. The seniors are active and engaged and require very little, if any, assistance. They are enjoying their independence.
The assisted living areas are for seniors with some level of physical or mental decline. You will see canes, walkers and wheelchairs. You will see caregivers helping seniors get dressed or assisting with their meals or taking them on walks or for exercise. That’s the essence of “assisted” living that impacts a senior’s level of independence.
The total care section is as the name implies. The senior is no longer able to care for some of their basic needs like eating, bathing, going to the bathroom, taking medications, etc. It can be a somewhat difficult experience to be cared for and lose personal independence, but it is also a beautiful act of charity that these seniors are being well cared for as they experience the twilight of their lives and prepare spiritually for eternal life.
Side effects of loss of freedom
There is another side to the loss of independence. According to True Link, a senior services organization, the side effects of reducing the freedom of seniors can impact their health and overall well-being. For instance, taking away a senior’s car keys, a primary symbol of independence, can trigger a number of emotions like anger, fear, guilt and depression.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weighs in, “Depression in seniors is largely misunderstood as a normal part of aging, but that is not the case. Failure to treat the progressive loss of independence can result in a host of other health-related problems.”
The loss of independence is a reality that will affect a great many seniors. You can help to delay or prevent this reality by doing your best to stay active in mind and body. It may be true that “growing old ain’t for sissies,” but you can lessen the impact by getting ahead of the problem.
Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send Bill your thoughts on this and other topics, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.