Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Don’t Be a Boy Scout: Preserving the Independence of Older Adults

Photo by Born1945

We have a few stereotypes about the relationship between older adults and the younger generations. Witness the worn-out image of the boy scout, aiding a mature woman as she crosses the street. Remember Russell in the Pixar 2009 film Up? He first met the widower Carl by asking him, “Are you in need any assistance?”

Yes, the younger generations should provide support for the oldest adults in our communities. However, they should do so in a way that recognizes existing capabilities and preserves independence. Over time, Russell and Carl develop a mutually benefitting relationship because they help each other and respect each others' strengths.

Most older adults don’t fight evil geniuses in South American jungles, but they do have a variety of skills and abilities. These strengths and their hard-won wisdom allow them to meet their own needs and to contribute to the broader society. What they most often need from others is just patience, an open mind, and maybe a few resources.

(I will add a caveat that sometimes the adult child does need to step in if memory problems and other limitations really do pose a serious risk. But this is a topic for another post.)

When I first announced that I was going into gerontology, one of the nursing majors who worked with me in a tutoring center offered this advice, based on her clinical course work: “Be sure to emphasize what the older adult can do.” This has been a good guiding principle.

Too often, younger people seek to help older adults too soon and too much. When I first started volunteering at a multi-level care center, I opened doors, carried objects, finished sentences, and helped put on coats--often without first asking the person if he or she wanted such help. Most people, regardless of their age, enjoy the satisfaction of completing tasks for themselves.

Yesterday, I helped an octogenerian woman tour her new apartment. She had recently fractured a leg and is doing quite well with her recovery; she is scheduled to leave skilled nursing within a month. As I escorted her from the skilled nursing campus to the independent living campus, she wanted to push her own wheelchair, operate the elevator buttons, negotiate herself through doorways, and open doors herself. Yes, she took more time without help. However, she will need to do these things for herself when she moves into the independent living wing. She did seek my help with a task here and there, but I waited for her to ask.

I enjoy watching films that depict older adults. This last weekend, I watched the engaging film The Straight Story, (1999) which is based on actual events. At age 73, Alvin Straight learns that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke, and he wants to reunite with him.

Because of some physical limitations, Alvin no longer drives a car. He addresses this problem by outfitting his riding lawnmower with a trailer so that he can travel the 240 miles from his home in Iowa to his brother’s home in Wisconsin. Because the top speed of the mower is 5 mph, this takes him six weeks. Even though others offer to help him, Alvin is adamant that he will accomplish this task on his own and with his own resources. And he does so.

For the last couple of years, I keep mulling over this question: Why do adult children sometimes push too hard to help their parents and others a generation above them? “Dad, you need a walker.” “Mom, you shouldn’t be playing the organ at church anymore.” “Uncle Hank, why don’t you let me mow your lawn since I can do it faster and with less effort?”

I believe that adult children feel great anxiety in watching their parents manage changes to their mobility, finances, cognition and so forth. The adult child fears the unknown and just wants to assuage this tension by stepping in and pushing the older adult into a state of dependence. This will eliminate the anxiety of watching them move through the uncharted waters of creative adaptations. "Just move on to the next stage, already!"

The same dynamic happened in reverse years ago. The parent watched his or her child struggle to leave the nest. The parent might have said to the young adult, “Oh, just major in finance not music.” “Why don’t you stick with the same job and not change every three years?” “You just need to quit trying to find yourself and just settle down!” The parent had anxiety in watching the child make several attempts to launch, some of them awkward, some of them poorly planned, some of them with negative consequences.

The adult child needs to afford their parent the same room to grow into the next life stage. So don't be a boy scout. Try instead to first offer patience, understanding and then maybe a few resources when requested.


Generational Perspective: Why This Blog?
Talking with Older Adults: Serving as a Witness
Late Adulthood: A Time to Bless
Spirituality and Older Adults: Ask, Don't Tell


  1. Karen, I'm glad you saw and liked The Straight Story; I loved that film. I admit, though, that I never thought about it before in the light you're suggesting here--and the parallel you draw with Up is apt. The idea that we "children" need to show the same kind of awareness towards our parents as they did as we moved into our "next lift stage" is a wise one, I think.

  2. I read an article in the News & Observer that echoed some of your same conclusions, expect it was about Autistic children. According to the author, because her children often lack the communication skills to assert their needs and wants, people tend to take control. But as you said in the article, not matter what age, or what limitations you are facing, maintaining independence and control over your life is key. For older adults, it can actually extend their lives.

    1. Amy: Thanks for telling me about the same concept with another population. Too often, people with good intentions (but lack of awareness) end up doing too much or doing the wrong thing. It takes some time and flexibility to work out a productive dynamic between people! Thanks for reading / commenting.