Developing Empathy for Aging Loved Ones

Can you help me understand what my elderly dad might be feeling? I sometimes think that elderly people are "invisible" to the rest of us. We never seem to ask ourselves what they're thinking and feeling as they deal with personal loss, the implications of aging, and the prospect of death.

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You’re very kind and thoughtful to raise a question like this. As you’ve pointed out, our fast-paced, high-energy, youth-oriented culture doesn’t leave much room for the aging. They tend to be “out of sight, out of mind” – relegated to some specially designated corner where they can grow old and die without inconveniencing the rest of us unnecessarily. If this sounds harsh, it is. But things don’t have to be that way.

The elderly are, of course, people like the rest of us. They have the same thoughts and feelings and experience the same longings for love, acceptance and significance. They want to know that they matter to somebody. They need reassurance that, in the final analysis, their life really counts for something.

What sets your dad apart from you, perhaps, is a deep and growing sense that his quest for meaning is coming to a close and that the parade of life is ending. A major cause of stress and depression at any age is loss, and losses tend to be multiplied as time goes by; as C.S. Lewis once expressed it in a letter to a friend, “I’m afraid as we grow older life consists more and more in either giving up things or waiting for them to be taken from us.”

Thoughts like these may loom large in your father’s consciousness. He may be fighting the realization that the capabilities he spent a lifetime honing are no longer sharp. The person he relied on most (himself) is failing. A normal response is to attempt to regain control. One person may become demanding. Another may withdraw. Both reactions are probably different ways of asking the same important questions: Who was I? Who am I? Who am I becoming? The aging individual who successfully grapples with these questions will eventually find new responsibilities or expectations to focus on and new reasons to be grateful.

There are a number of ways you can help your elderly loved one make this transition and cope with the inevitable losses of aging. If your father is a Christian, you can remind him of the eternal hope of redemption and resurrection that he has in Jesus Christ which provides a purpose for living that transcends problems and circumstances. You can thank him for the example of his faith, tell him how much you admire the wisdom he has gained through the years, and encourage him to use it to help others who need his advice and counsel.

You can also look for opportunities to stimulate his enthusiasm about things he believes in and feels strongly about. Spend time talking about his area of expertise. Ask him about how he solved certain problems or faced difficult decisions in his career. As often as possible, validate his knowledge and his many contributions to your life. Suggest ways in which he can still contribute to society. Even if he is suffering from chronic health problems or a serious loss, a positive attitude can improve his ability to cope. To extend vitality and inhibit deterioration of body and soul, encourage him to spend time with people of all ages, to be active in meaningful pursuits (such as prayer or volunteer service), and to exercise physically. Enlist the help of friends, neighbors and family members as you support him in his faith and try to keep him on the “growing edge.”

If you have further questions or feel a need to discuss any of this information at greater length, we hope you’ll call us. A member of our Counseling team would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone.


Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones

Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caregiver Action Network

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

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