Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Meeting The Emotional Needs Of The Elderly

September 4, 1995

What changes can we expect from our elderly parents? What do we need to do to treat them with respect and dignity while offering assistance?

Maintain their pride and dignity by graciously overlooking their repetitions, incorrect memories, embarrassing mistakes and emerging limitations. The emotional conflict is not worth it. What they need is to feel loved and wanted. Weigh words and measure criticisms to avoid unnecessary hurts over routine problems.

Find a way for them to 'to save face." Humor is an excellent way to make a point. The elderly recognize when they are being talked down to. Keep your conversations on an adult/adult basis. Some parents are sensitive about being reminded that you did something for them. Calling attention to their dependence threatens their self image. Anticipate needs so they don't have to ask.

Many children wait until parents are away from home and then do the deep cleaning and repairs that need to be done. Communicate with your siblings so that each of you are applying your special talents to sustain your mother in her home. Car repairs and upkeep, carpentry and plumbing, floor scrubbing and yardwork are but a few examples of things you can do for her m an unobtrusive way.

Make it seem like they are doing you a favor when you do something for them. "I’m going to town to do some shopping. Would you like to ride along? I'd enjoy the company." Or, "I'm doing a load a wash right now. Why don't I take your things with me?"

Most of all, the elderly need to feel they are needed in a tangible way. You can kill them with kindness by doing too much for them. Allow them the opportunity to give of themselves and help in their way. Don't do anything for them they can do for themselves. Their independence is precious. It can be only maintained with a struggle.

What about hearing problems?

A loss of hearing is also misinterpreted by many as a sign of senility. Rather than requesting that people repeat themselves, the elderly seek to avoid that reaction by agreeing to anything to avoid embarrassment. Take the initiative to make sure they understand. Help others be patient and aware of this issue.

"My mother lives alone in a town about two hours away from me. She is in her 80s and we are increasingly concerned about her well-being. What can we do from a distance to meet her emotional needs?"

Phone calls are nice but letters are wonderful. Letters can be read over and over and shown to friends and family. Short letters and postcards serve just as well as long letters and keep the trip to the mailbox rewarding. The same can be said for frequent short phone calls instead of infrequent longer calls.

Give little remembrances instead of waiting to give big gifts on the holidays. Presents that can be used - food, stationary, napkins, etc. - will keep your mother's life uncluttered. Suggest to her that she give a memento instead of a gift on which she would have to spend money. Her gift giving brings special joy from not only giving but seeing your reaction of appreciation.

Holidays, birthdays and special occasions should not be forgotten. The day can be long and crushingly disappointing if she feels forgotten on an important day. Sundays and holidays are long and lonesome without family. If you have to pick a particular day to call or visit, pick a Sunday. Spell out any change of plans and make alternative plans so she does not feel or imagine she is being ignored or slighted.

Keep her informed on what everyone is doing. Just knowing what is going on keeps her a part of the family. As her friends die, you’ll have to replace them with your involvement. Let her meet your friends. Then your conversations about your friends and activities will extend her life vicariously.

It will add a special glow to her life if her peers notice your visits to her. It makes her feel good that her friends know that her children remember and care for her. Invite her friends over during your visits or invite them along on a luncheon out.

Pay attention to special needs and pleasures. This could mean driving in the countryside to hear birds sing, reading poetry, going on a shopping trip or bringing homemade bread or a favorite dessert. A visit back to her hometown will stir memories that will be talked about for weeks and months to come.

It can be as much fun pleasing elderly parents as pleasing grandchildren. If you approach elder care with as much creativity and thoughtfulness as caring for grandchildren, what others might think of as a burden will be a pleasure.