Those things are definitely important, but I want to take you “beyond the physical.” As I’ve aged and as I’ve cared for my elderly mother, there are certain practices that have nurtured and sustained me during times of crisis, loss and the everyday challenges of life!
The first key practice is “setting boundaries.” How many of us continue to take on more and more tasks and responsibilities as our elderly parents need us, our adult children need us, our community needs us? Assessing our capacity and making the choice to say yes or no is far healthier than saying yes to every request that comes along.
Let me share an example from my elderly mother’s life. She always has been a natural at caregiving. Finally, after giving herself totally to the needs of three different family members, she called me one day, exhausted and exasperated. She told me, “I have no life of my own. Why does this keep happening to me?” She was ready to hear that she needed to set boundaries, and we talked about how she could do this. It was not easy for a woman who said “yes” to every request. But the next time my aunt became demanding and verbally abusive to her, my mother was able to say, “I will not allow you to talk to me that way. I am leaving now.” My mother shared that she felt terrible doing that to my aunt, but afterwards felt empowered. That skill has served her well in the ensuing years. “Setting boundaries” helps us reach deep inside ourselves, and honor and care for ourselves.
The second key practice is “building our support network.” I’ve always been a socially connected person long before social media and Facebook came along. Until my mother had her first health crisis, I had no idea how well my support network would serve me. I didn’t even call it by that name. I simply knew I had friends I could call on for help at anytime. I have since learned that a support network does far more than provide us with comfort: “Harvard research has shown that breast cancer patients with no friendship network are four times more likely to die from the disease than those with ten or more close friends. Studies have also shown that social support can lower blood pressure, protect against dementia, and reduce the risk of depression.”
Five years ago, when my elderly mother had a health crisis and was close to death, the first person I reached out to was not a professional or senior care expert. It was my childhood friend who listened to me as I sorted out a very complex situation. She didn’t have the answers, but I knew she would walk with me on this difficult part of my journey of life. Fast forward to this month, as that same friend struggles with her own health and cannot walk pain-free. Now I am there for her. I realized that while she could not travel to New York City (her favorite thing to do), I could bring a bit of NYC to her. I sent her the newest fashion edition of a NYC magazine. She told me she enjoyed the magazine but what she appreciated most was my thoughtfulness.
Finally, the third key practice is creating and enjoying moments of joy. There are so many little ways we can experience joy without any effort. I am filled with joy and feel totally relaxed when on my evening walk and I gaze upon my neighbor’s beautiful roses. Or when I look up to see a beautiful sunset or listen to my favorite music while falling asleep.
But, life is tough. Moments of joy do not always easily happen. Each of us will face times of sadness and situations over which we seem to have no control. My mother is struggling with stage IV cancer and facing the nasty side effects of chemo. Last week, a moment of joy presented itself in one of the saddest conversations I have ever had. While speaking with a dear friend about her father’s death, she looked deeply into my eyes and told me, “Dale, in his dying, my father taught me how to live and how to die. It was his gift to me.” At that moment my friend passed that gift along to me. I recognized I needed to somehow lift my mother and me out of the never-ending medical appointments and procedures and experience joy and “live.” It was the first time that I felt we had the power of choice and control over the cancer! So, we created our own time of joy, traveling back to Mom’s birthplace for a weekend together by the Bay.
I hope I’ve provided you with some insight into practices that you may have not associated with healthy aging. While caring for our physical body is incredibly important, let us not forget the psychological, emotional and social side of healthy aging.
Dale C. Carter, founder of TransitionAgingParents.com, is an eldercare advocate, author and speaker. Her book, Transitioning Your Aging Parent: A 5 Step Guide Through Crisis & Change, helps adult children and families navigate the inevitable crises and changes their aging parents will face. Her ADAPT framework provides a clear-cut process for making the right decision, making the change and along the way, strengthening family relationships. Through her radio show and blog, Dale helps family caregivers respond to the challenges of caregiving, as well as find purpose and fulfillment in what is truly some of the most important work of their lives.