My mom will be 80 years old this November. So, as the pandemic unfolded, I was pretty worried about her; and my brother was too, so much so that in the 48-hour period before , we ‘asked’ her to pack up lock, stock and barrel and move to his house. She was blindsided; but always a team player, she acquiesced. My mom is used to me taking things by storm. While growing up she would tell me, “Paula, go gently through life.” But I digress. My mom lives alone and doesn’t drive, and we couldn’t be sure if the imposed limitations would allow her to access what she needed. So off she went in his pickup truck, boldly and without complaint, to live as a guest in my brother’s home for 3 months.
I think when someone is vulnerable our first instinct is to protect. And when someone is ill or frail, our first impulse is to problem-solve and to heal. So, it’s understandable, though not optimal, that we’ve arrived at a collective understanding of aging as frailty and illness – and we’ve focused there mightily. We’ve taken by storm the developmental stage of older adulthood and held it there. Hostage. And if that sounds overblown, ask yourself if you’re looking forward to aging as your pinnacle experience.
Now granted, my brother did not behave as a captor. He cooked elaborate meals, planted perennials like life depended on it, and took lunchtime walks with my mom, even as he was holding down his now-remote teaching job. He’s a terrific “caregiver.”
But since then, my mom has moved back home where she lives independently. It’s 4 months later, the pandemic carries on, and I’ve seen her live by her strengths. She walks every day, except when it’s too hot. She reads historical non-fiction books that would make you cry just for their page count alone. In lieu of church choir, she sings or chants as she gets ready for bed. She’s learned to Zoom. My mom wears her cute clothes whether she goes out or not. And ‘goes out’ she does, when she can. She takes vitamin C, vitamin D, L-lysine, turmeric. She runs her HEPA filters and diffuses lavender. She does “legs up the wall” before dinner. She colors, sews, runs the vacuum. She prays. She prays for me and my brother, for her siblings, for the neighbors upstairs who make way too muc
h noise. She prays for the future and gives thanks for small blessings. But what brings tears to my eyes is that for now she does this alone in her home, sustaining herself with small joys and with courage, even as our world seems ready to spin off its axis. And I have found myself saying that one of the best things I love about my mom is she is easy to make happy. And she grows more and more this way with each passing year.
Strengths-based aging is an important part of person-centered practice. I know these things about my mom because she’s my mom. But whether we are family member or professional care provider, we should know the strengths of every older adult that we relate to. Strengths are personal attributes such as skills, capacities, talents, preferences, wellness practices, hobbies, and hidden potentials. Strength is learned wisdom. Strengths are also family relationships, community supports, social interdependencies, and access to services.
Just a few questions get us there:
Share three words that describe you.
What are your greatest talents, your greatest loves?
Who are the people in your life that you enjoy?
What are your top two
life lessons so far?
Who depends on you, even if they don’t know it?
How are you still growing these days?
I bet we can think of more. Giving our attention to strengths makes us more intelligent caregivers. We’re more willing to observe and ask questions than to demand and prescribe. We’re more able to build on what’s working than to be satisfied with a list of deficits. Giving attention to strengths changes our understanding of aging, helps us see it more holistically, beyond frailty and decline, and makes us more gentle caregivers.
And my hope is if I can do this enough, and if we can collectively, perhaps when our time comes, and it will, we will know our aging differently. We’ll make friends with it. We will come to know aging as our strength and even our pinnacle developmental stage.