In my recent survey, the issue of being a burden, or maintaining your independence as you age was the one thing that most people mentioned. People wrote things like:
- Who is going to care for me should I become frail or forgetful and can’t care for myself?
- My biggest fear is loss of independence and being dependent on someone who does not understand how my mind works.
- I need to stay as independent as possible and taking steps to ensure that I will not be any kind of burden, whether physical, financial or social, to my children.
These are very real issues, and none of us can know in advance if we will need help as we become older, or not. Because none of us know just what will happen.
But research shows that the majority of people will face a slow decline towards the end of their life, becoming more and more frail, until eventually we just peter out (for a variety of physical reasons).
So pondering this question now and identifying what, if anything, can be prepared for is very important.
It is especially important for the many who do not have children, or anyone younger and more able around them, who might be able to provide support. Indeed, this is so important (and I am one of them!) that I will write about this separately in another blog.
Below I mention some of the actions you can take now, but there is one very important aspect to consider beforehand, which you can begin to attend to now, and that is answering this question:
How willing are you right now to ask for help (in any situation??
Just imagine a scale of 1-10, where 10 is completely willing, and 1 not at all. Where would you instinctively place yourself on this scale?
The answer will help you move towards actions you need to take to prepare well for the best end of life possible (see below).
Considering this question myself though, reminds me of earlier in the year when I was in London, travelling on a very packed underground. A young person saw me get on, and jumped up to offer me their seat. Me! But I’m not old, am I? (Even as I write this now, I am giggling to myself! I’m nearly 62, not ancient, but definitely not young any more – unless you happen to be older in which case everyone younger than you is young!)
Anyway, I accepted graciously, and sat reflecting on not just being perceived as old, but the memory that floated up from when I was a teenager.
I had done the same thing – offered my seat to an older woman. She refused, saying she was fine. I was left feeling embarrassed, awkward for having asked, and vowing not to do it again. Not ideal.
Being willing to receive help, and to ask for it when it is needed, is an important life skill to master.
Independence and dependence are bedfellows that can exist happily next to each other, but only so long as we have a healthy relationship with both. This means an ability to recognise when we need to act independently, and when we need to be willing to receive help.
You can probably agree with this when you are still physically able to do what you want to do.
But what about when your health is such that you rely on someone else for everything, such as in the case of a stroke?
Simon’s aunt Miriam had had a stroke which left her paralysed down one side. After some considerable rehabilitation in hospital, she was able to return home with a small army of caregivers to attend to her needs. This in itself took some adjusting to for Miriam, but she managed.
She was remarkably cheerful about it all; as she had always been a chatterbox, the fact that her speech was undamaged was a solace.
However, she had her routine at home which worked well, but was lacking when it came to an outing for a family wedding.
Miriam’s needs were attended to on this occasion by her nephew, who was used to pushing her to the local shops in her wheelchair, or going for a short drive in the car. He was not so used to longer social occasions.
So when Miriam needed to go to the toilet at the wedding reception, she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t feel she could ask Simon, and instead felt anxious at the prospect of asking someone she didn’t know so well.
So anxious, that she resolved to not drink and just hang on until she was at home.
Fortunately an embarrassing situation was avoided when another female relative, versed in noticing these things, asked Miriam if she needed to be taken to the toilet.
It’s hard to imagine being in this situation when you are well, isn’t it?
And yet, as I said earlier, it is more likely to happen to most of us than not.
So , what can you do NOW to help yourself, as regards maintaining your independence?
Here’s 7 points to consider:
- Think well in advance about your approaching older age. For instance, might you need to move home? My Mum and Dad had been living in France for the best part of 20 years. In their late seventies, they moved back to England, to the town where my sister lived. When I asked Dad why he wanted to move (knowing how much they loved France) he, rather emphatically, said ‘I don’t want to die in France!’ Both of them were perfectly healthy, although my Dad had had a couple of falls. But by taking care of this before it was really needed, they were much better set up for when they both were much more frail.
- Make a list of your needs, desires and preferences in general, and identify what really is absolutely unnegotiable, and what you could be flexible about.
- Keep yourself in good health as much as possible by taking care of your diet and exercising. Sounds obvious, but still worth a mention. Declining into being unable to move easily because of weight problems or other symptoms possible to manage better right now are worth it. So if you’ve always meant to give up smoking/lose weight/reduce alcohol, now really is the time!
- Think about your last years/months/weeks. Where would you want to be? Who would you want to be living with? What can you do now to make that more likely to happen?
- Discuss this topic (even if it feels unpalatable) with others. Belonging to a strong community (whether family or friends) is hugely important in maintaining a good quality of life in later life.
- Consider what your needs might be, and how that marries with your finances. As the body ages, it cannot do what it used to do (or it takes a lot longer, and takes more out of it). You may need to pay for housekeeping, a cleaner, repairs, even transportation. My Dad, while still healthy, simply could not manage chopping logs any more. He arranged for a younger neighbour to come in, paying cash. It worked well on both sides.
- Remember that asking for help means you are giving someone else an opportunity TO help. When my husband needed to make the 5 hour return journey to the hospital 3 times per week when he had cancer, we needed drivers as I could only manage it one of those times. What we discovered was that many were honoured to be asked, and felt glad they could make a contribution to our situation. So asking for, giving, and receiving help can be a benefit to all concerned.
So what about you?
When your body ages to the extent that you can no longer do something you used to be able to do easily, how will you manage?
Are you too stubborn for your own good, or have you already learned gracefully about the power of asking for help?
Share in the comments and let us know your experiences.