Column: Caring for the elderly

Caring for the elderly

By Father John Catoir
For Today’s Catholic

Father’s Day has come and gone. Was it a pleasant experience? Have you ever tried to take a grandparent out to a nice restaurant, only to meet strong resistance?  “I don’t want to go out!” You may find yourself reacting inwardly: ‘How ungrateful can you be!’

It’s human for you to react that way. Brush off their abruptness as the new normal, and try to understand their way of thinking. Here’s the first rule: avoid dropping-in without calling first. Always ask what he or she wants before you present your idea for a fun day. Never press your plan. Accept their wishes peacefully.

Accepting the elderly as they are, is a good start. Stay calm. If you’re dealing with a severe case of second-childhood, be firm. You are now the parent, so insist on their good behavior. Everyone has the same obligation to be as charitable as possible. They must learn patience, and you must remain in charge.

This is all easier said than done, but it’s basically common sense. I learned a lot about caring for the elderly when I was 25. I got a job in a New York City hospital, Elmhurst General, and worked as a nurse’s aide. They didn’t know that I was a seminarian. I was on a summer break doing this as part of my preparation for the priesthood.

The office assigned me to the Male Geriatric Unit, and there, I experienced elderly patients who were nice most of the time, but also demanding and mischievous. They all hated losing control, and could become obnoxious at times, creating problems for the staff.

Frustration is a part of the human condition. We all try to stay calm, but to err is human. I’m writing this column with the hope that I can be of some help in explaining why the elderly can become irascible for what you might think is a very petty reason.

People who once had authority in business, the military, education, home-making, who gradually begin losing their hearing, their memory, and their power to come and go as they please, often become contrary and irksome. The key to dealing with them is heroic patience. Put on the will to eat humble pie. They all want to be independent, but they know they can’t be.

I’m 86 years young at this writing, and I have observed my own changing moods and attitudes over the years. At this age, I can become needlessly impatient over insignificant things that never bothered me. I call this stage of life: the disintegration process. Others refer to it as “aging.” It can be both pleasant and difficult at the same time.

Pleasant because it’s God’s will, and it’s a normal part of life. And difficult because it’s not your will, and it doesn’t feel normal.

To all you super-senior citizens, whom I love dearly, I say:  pray for the grace to be grateful in all circumstances. No one’s perfect so you’ll find there will be times when you’ll want to scream with indignation. Count to ten, and pray for the strength to be nice. Remember, with God, all things are possible.

May the Lord be your strength and your joy.  

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