Column 16- Helping otherswhile allowing independence is important for all ages

As we think about providing care for our children, grandchildren, elderly parents or other friends and loved ones; do we see the development of hope as one positive aspect of their lives? Hope can also be described, among other words, like faith, confidence and courage. When I think of contributing to another person’s life, I hope that I am providing some hope in their life. Certainly, my goal is to contribute to their level of self-confidence, however, if I become too helpful, I could end up taking away some of their self-reliance by doing too much for them. And that doesn’t mean that I’m any less caring, but there may be times when stepping in to take on more functions within their lives may be needed. However, I just need to be aware of how much assistance they really need.
This is an issue that has become clearer and clearer to me over the years. Teaching and encouraging will help much more than warning a person and doing it all for them. This becomes more evident when we’re caring for older people because having choices and input into how we choose to live our lives contributes much to our level of health and happiness. It can be hard to watch someone we love spending their days in ways we do not believe is best for them. We may be concerned when they choose to take part in different activities than they used to; or if we believe they may be coming down with some sort of illness. Research has shown us that even though a person may need a great deal of care, they still need to be able to have input on decisions that affect their lives. We can actually do more harm than good to a person if we take over their decision making. A person needs to feel some control over their lives in order to feel satisfied with their life. If all decisions are being made for them, and things being done to them, research has shown that people living with this higher constraint in their lives are less satisfied and in poorer health.
As we age, we may undergo many changes that contribute to us losing control of our lives. We may lose our ability to walk freely and we then get back our control through the use of walking aids or perhaps getting a wheelchair in order to give us some mobility again. Some people might see using a walking aid as a constraint, I prefer to see it as a tool to keep us more independent. In addition to physical losses we usually have financial losses that affect us as well, although some people do experience more financial freedom as they age because they receive a regular income that they may not have had when they were younger.
A loss that I dread is the day that I can no longer safely drive myself. The loss of being able to independently get behind the wheel and head off somewhere when I want to is a massive loss, especially to those who have driven vehicles all their lives. Another huge loss that many people have to deal with is moving from their home into a care facility. This move can often be a huge blessing in disguise though, as they no longer have to worry about paying bills, getting meals and maintaining a home; but it’s still a huge loss, particularly with regards to their independence.
Believe it or not there are many services and opportunities that are aimed at ensuring people have independence in their lives. Home care services are in place to assist people in remaining in their homes with their pets, belongings, memories and surroundings that are important to them, for as long as it’s possible. Long term care homes have resident councils so people have the opportunity to express their opinions in ways that can be considered when supports, care and programs are being planned for them. A large number of studies carried out over the past 40+ years have influenced these types of practices. For example, some studies compared situations where the older population had very little say in what activities they took part in, to those who had more input. The results consistently showed that the less control the people had, the more negative effects on their emotional status, their functioning, personal well-being and on their physical health.
So what does this all mean? I believe this is a very important concept for everyone to understand because it is something that affects all of us. Think about yourselves, how do you feel when you feel like you have no control over some aspects of your life? It’s not a good feeling, is it? The truth is, at some point in our lives we’ll have to deal with the stuff life throws at us, over which we have no control. But if we maintain as much control of our lives that we can, our mental and physical health will benefit as we age. I believe that taking away choice just because a person is older is a form of ageism, discrimination because of age. I challenge each of us, myself included, to observe more deeply how we can and do encourage independence for our older population. So when we come up short on this issue, let’s work together to find a better way of going about things. Hope is courage and courage gives us the chance to make our own decisions for as long as we can – and that’s a benefit to all of us.

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