Tactfully Assisting the Aging

Tactfully Assisting the Aging

It can be overwhelming when we assess the needs of friends, neighbors and loved ones who are faced with the many struggles of aging.  This sometimes will cause us to shrink away from helping at all. At other times, it causes well-meaning individuals to act in ways, although meant to be helpful, are not always the best-case scenario.  Helping the elderly can sometimes get complicated in part because of their diminishing cognitive function, at other times because of their inability to understand and manage technological advancements, and on many occasions because their own fears keep them from being honest with themselves and others.  Too often, because aging individuals naturally want to continue to play the nurturing and protective role towards their children or grandchildren, and because they desperately want to maintain their independence to make and implement decisions on their own, they learn to hide the truth of their condition or situation.  Family members who are respectful of the elders in their life are left with the difficult task of discerning where to step in and where to respectfully continue to allow their independence. These dynamics can make helping an elderly person a little more difficult than it might first seem.  While the natural reaction from anyone with a kind and generous heart is to rush in and try to fix the situation, if the situation doesn’t require immediate physical intervention to keep the individual from physical harm, contacting the family members would be the first step.  This can be emotionally charged ground for all involved and does require sensitivity and understanding.  Approaching family members could cause them to feel embarrassed that they were not aware of a situation.  It could cause them to feel shame that they didn’t know or understand and hadn’t done anything to intervene in a particular situation.  It could cause them to feel angry that someone who is not a member of the family is making suggestions regarding someone they love.  They could feel frustrated at the timing of the incident compounded by their own busy and/or complicated lives.  These and other emotions might surface when the family first learns their loved one is in a difficult situation. Upon hearing the stories of families trying to provide care for an aging loved one, I have found it is not uncommon for family members to be accused of improprieties, neglect, mismanagement and worse regarding a loved one.  It would be in the best interest of the elderly to not assume the worst of the family, but to step in with the attitude that everyone wants what is best and work collectively to find solutions to the challenges at hand.  (On the other hand, if the situation suggests abuse, neglect or any other impropriety, taking matters into one’s own hand is still not the solution.  Never is it ok to involve one’s self in the finances, medical decisions and other major aspects of an elderly person outside of your own family.  These are situations that must be handled by the family or legal guardian.  In the event of obvious abuse or neglect,  proper authorities must be contacted.)   It is important to care enough to understand the family’s feelings as they work through them and adjust to the knowledge that someone else knew of their loved one’s plight before they did.  Genuine empathy is key to opening communication so that everyone can work together to find the best solutions for the elderly individual.  Remember, for many families, this may be uncharted territory. In most cases, the family only wants to be able to do as much as possible for their elderly loved one.  Allowing the family to process information by giving room for them to work through the difficult emotions involved paves the way for everyone to work together.  Given time and the opportunity for additional resources, most families will welcome the involvement of helpful community members to lighten their load as they care for their loved one.  
As Americans, we tend to ease our conscience by making a monetary donation towards causes, rather than sacrificing our time and personal involvement.  For the elderly, many times, our time is of more importance and more helpful than assisting monetarily.    While not exhaustive, I would like to offer the following suggestions on ways we can tactfully assist the aging and their families.

Yard Work

Many of our seniors are not able to tend to their yards.  After a lifetime of keeping things neat and orderly outdoors, they now sit inside looking out at the grass getting too tall, the leaves on the lawn, weeds in the flowers, bird baths and feeders in need of cleaning, sidewalks that need swept, hedges that need trimmed, and so forth.  To pay someone to do these tasks can be a huge burden on many.  Offering to maintain the lawn and help with yardwork benefits the elderly financially as well as helps individuals maintain that sense of order that is so important to most.  

House Cleaning or Maintenance Jobs

Keeping up a house can be difficult for any of us, but especially for those who are not physically strong enough to do what they once were able to do.  Even for those who can maintain most of the chores around a home, climbing on ladders, heavy lifting, and other physically demanding or challenging tasks are things with which the elderly need assistance, but often don’t want to ask for it.  Keeping our eyes open for ways we can help around the house can save an elderly person the expense of hiring someone to do these jobs,  or trying to do them themselves and putting themselves in danger.  

Run Errands

Whether the senior still drives or not, taking the time to run errands can be a real blessing as one offers companionship, physical assistance with packages difficult for the elderly to manage, and makes themselves available to answer questions and offer assistance in a fast moving world.   Running errands could include grocery shopping, going to the beauty or barber shop, collecting medication from the pharmacy, and doctor's visits. 

Go for a drive

Sometimes it’s nice to just to go out for no particular reason.  This is especially true for those who are often house bound.  Back country roads often evoke memories, opening doors for delightful conversation.  For many, the opportunity to remember days gone by and share their memories with others is a gift they don’t take lightly. Trips to specific locations of significance to the senior whether it's a point of interest from their past or some place they have never been before but have always wanted to see is a great way to spend time with them.  

Offer a meal

So often, preparing meals becomes a chore for our seniors.  And, for those who must eat alone, the task sometimes doesn’t seem worth the effort.  Preparing meals that the elderly can just heat and eat (being careful to keep in mind any dietary restrictions) is a good way to help.   Disposable containers make it easy for both parties and dating the food gifts is a good idea.  When  bringing in a fresh supply of food, ask if you can check the frig and remove any food that is outdated or questionable. 

Assist with Phone Calls

Technology seems to expand much faster than the majority of us are able to master.  This seems especially true for our senior citizens, many of whom may not have even had a telephone in their homes when they were children, or if they did, it was most likely a party line.  While some seniors are adept at navigating the internet and using smart phones to make calls and send text, many more feel “left behind” by technology.  Most of us have experienced extreme frustration at having to punch information into an automated system when we call a doctor’s office, insurance office or other places of business.  What is frustrating to us, can often be impossible to the elderly.  Offering to assist with telephone calls is a great way to help elderly friends and neighbors. 


 Handwritten notes are becoming more and more rare but are still a simple way to let others know we care. Unlike a phone call that can’t be replayed, handwritten notes can be kept and savored for a long time.  In addition, some seniors would like to be able to communicate by mail with their children, grandchildren and other friends and relatives who live away.  Offering to let them dictate a letter for you to write is an easy way for them to feel like they are still a part of the lives of their distant loved ones.    An inexpensive and appropriate gift might be to provide one’s elderly friend or family member with an attractive basket of  blank cards and stamps. 

Just Sit

While we are all busy trying to find enough hours in the day to complete our tasks at hand, so many seniors have difficulty dealing with long, lonely hours of solitude after having lived an active life for so many years.   Taking an hour to sit and visit with an elderly person is a gift. 

Read/Watch Movies Together

 Offering to read a book or magazine article aloud creates moments to share additional conversation.  For those who struggle to see well, this type of interaction can be especially beneficial and welcomed.  

Find out if the individual has means to watch movies.  If they do not, perhaps an inexpensive television and a DVD player would be a great gift.  Many elderly people enjoy watching movies either made during the time of their young adulthood or portraying that time of history.  If  health and diet restrictions allow, consider some fun movie theater type snacks as well such as popcorn and peanuts as you share time in the home

Pick up the phone

For many reasons, we don’t always have the opportunity to just sit and visit  The next best thing is to get on a regular schedule of calling to check in on an elderly person.  Knowing they can expect a call from someone at a designated time of the day or week, can help an elderly person feel less isolated and brings a measure of comfort and security.  

The above suggestions are ways in which we can offer our time and presence to be supportive to our senior friends, neighbors and family members.  Most of the suggestions require little, if any, monetary involvement and yet a lot of them help to relieve the financial burden by providing services and materials for which the elderly would need to spend their limited income.  In addition to these ways to physically help alleviate stress and offer companionship, a timely gift card to their favorite restaurant, beauty parlor or barber shop, local grocery store or department store would be considered appropriate in most situations if individuals feel the need for tactful, financial assistance. When families, friends and communities work together to provide, our seniors receive much better care than when someone tries to do it alone.  Working together requires patience, communication and understanding for the many complex issues that can arise and care must be given to always allow the senior and their family priority while respecting their feelings and allowing them to maintain their pride and integrity.  We have heard the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” and I would like to offer that it takes a village to give our seniors the care they deserve.  The suggestions in this article are hopefully a starting point, and there is much for all of us to do. 


Deborah said...

Beautifully said, Tammy! One think I'd note is that this applies not only to the aging, but also to the disabled of any age.

T. Cupp said...

Thanks, Deborah! I appreciate your comments and perspective. Sending love.