Protecting the Dignity of an Aging Loved One

What would it take to help an aging parent maintain the greatest possible sense of his own human dignity, worth, and independence? My wife and I are more than willing to take care of my aging father, but he's always been a proud man, and we don't want to crush his spirit. How do we protect him against the feeling that he's becoming useless?

According to researchers, most older people measure their personal worth by how well they meet three goals: 1) dependability; 2) ability to maintain close family ties; and 3) self-sufficiency. The key to honoring aging loved ones is to understand how to encourage them in these three areas.

Most elderly people do not want to reach out for help, rely on government assistance, or have hired help in their homes. They want to do things independently, proving themselves dependable and responsible. If you want to increase your father’s sense of personal worth, show him that you value his spirit and admire his character. With a little initiative and creativity, you can find ways to do this even when it becomes obvious that outside help is an absolute necessity. Here are a few suggestions you might want to keep in mind.

  • Recognize skills and successes.
    Honoring your father entails recognizing him not only for who he is, but also for past achievements, abilities and talents. As opportunities arise, compliment him on his accomplishments in raising a family, contributing to the community and church, and being a good citizen. Compliment him for knowing what is important in the context of personal morality, faith and relationships. Let him know how much you appreciate his input in your life.
  • Reminisce.
    Invite your dad to review his most precious and most meaningful memories. If he’s a Christian, he probably has many stories to tell about how God has provided for him through the good times and the bad. If you can get him to talk about these experiences, you’ll be providing him with an opportunity to share his faith with his children and grandchildren. Reviewing life in light of God’s grace is an exercise in maintaining a healthy view of self.
  • Record stories in audio or video format.
    It’s important to help an aging loved one capture his personal history. You can also preserve his current interactions with kids and grandkids on digital media, in still photos, or in memory gift books. At family reunions, birthdays and anniversaries, ask each guest to say something memorable about your father or to retell a favorite story about his past life. These stories can become part of your family’s legacy to future generations.
  • Reinvent memories.
    Send notes on days that are special to your aging loved one, such as birthdays, anniversaries, the day he became a Christian, D-Day, or any other occasion that he finds meaningful. Celebrate everything! Affirmations of life and love remind elderly people that they are appreciated. Jot down positive things you remember about growing up. Then cut them into small scraps of paper, roll them into scrolls, and put them in a jar for your dad to read now and then.
  • Remember old friends and make new ones.
    Elderly people benefit from spending time with old companions as well as making new friends. Having a close friend in old age is sometimes more important than maintaining a large family network. Friendships help people survive losses and move on. They’re also beneficial when it comes to processing loss, depression and feelings of worthlessness. Do everything you can to ensure that your father has access to friends by phone, e-mail, or regular mail. If necessary, make yourself available to provide transportation for friends to visit.
  • Renew energy with regular exercise.
    Swimming, walking, or other light exercise improves circulation and keeps the endorphins – those “feel-good hormones” – flowing through the blood system. If possible, join your dad regularly for a walk outside or down the hall, in an exercise facility, or in a shopping mall. Some communities and congregate-living facilities have warm-water pools that are ideal for arthritis sufferers.
  • Report opportunities for senior volunteers.
    Be on the lookout for and let your father know about community programs in which senior citizens can get involved. Many non-profit organizations not only provide a place for seniors to volunteer, but they need volunteer assistance to carry out their mission. The federally funded Senior Companion program works with non-profit agencies to enable older adults with limited incomes to serve other seniors who are chronically impaired or frail. In return, volunteers receive a stipend, transportation assistance, lunch, and accident insurance. For more information see the
    Senior Companions webpage. You can also find out about volunteer opportunities by checking with your local Area Agency on Aging.
  • Encourage latent talents.
    If appropriate, nudge your dad in the direction of developing an interest, hobby or pastime – for example, painting, drawing, writing, scrapbooking, or woodworking. Many aging people are becoming interested in computers, and there are many classes available to those who want to learn new skills. Probe your father’s interests until you see his eyes light up. Then find a way to get him involved.

For additional help and information on this topic, we’d encourage you to consult the resources and referrals highlighted below. Or if you have relationship concerns and challenges associated with this situation, please don’t hesitate to give our Counseling Department a call.

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Caring for Aging Parents

Caregiver Action Network

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Elderly Care

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