Life expectancy is on the rise, and they say 70 is the new 50. People are living longer, but there is, inevitably, a point when most of us have to face the fact that Mum or Dad – or both – really do need more help. In her book Time to Help Your Parents, Jacky Hyams equips you with the knowledge you need to help your parents live happy and fulfilling lives as they grow older. In this excerpt, Jacky gives advice on how to encourage your parents to stay active and enjoy life, no matter what their circumstances.
Staying active and occupied keeps us motivated. And being motivated means getting the best out of life. Yet many families worry that when their parents are faced with big changes – perhaps when health problems start to restrict their independence or following the loss of a partner – their motivation to engage with the world will shrink, leaving them unwilling to go out, maintain friendships, or develop new ones, and enjoy life.
This need not be the case. Unless your relatives live in real rural isolation they can, if they choose, get involved with many different kinds of social activities, entertainment or community options outside the home, whatever their circumstances.
They may be registered blind or unable to walk far. They may be comfortably off – or living on benefits. Yet if they’re up for some form of social contact with others or want to pursue a favourite pastime or hobby, there’s no real reason why they can’t do so.
Having said that, the encouragement to take advantage of any of these options might well have to come from you. Older relatives, especially if newly widowed, can sometimes be nervous about a new environment, even more so if bereavement has resulted in a move away from a familiar area. They may feel under-confident about venturing into a new social situation, particularly if they’re adjusting to physical changes that have limited their independence. Or, even if quite mobile, they might not be willing to leave their comfort zone, beyond an occasional foray to the nearest shops or visits to relatives.
You might hear quite a lot of ‘It’s not me to go to those places’ or ‘I’m not really up to it’ if you suggest trying a local community centre, for instance. And you certainly can’t push the issue too far. But in trying to help them see the benefits, such as outside stimulation, more company, a chance to explore an interest, you’re not just giving them an opportunity to reduce their dependence on family – it could broaden their horizons. Going off, just once a week, to spend time in a different environment and to socialise builds up confidence and provides a sense of purpose – particularly after a lengthy bout in hospital or a bereavement.
Here are some tips for helping parents adjust to changed circumstances or a new environment:
If they’re recently bereaved, consider where they are in the grieving process. For instance, if their partner died unexpectedly, e.g. following a heart attack, socialising might not seem appropriate, as they may feel guilty at the idea of moving on so quickly.
Try inviting them to stay with you for a while and then introduce the odd outing, like a concert or a visit to look at National Trust buildings, to kickstart their interest in life again.
If their independence is now limited by frailty, don’t underestimate the value of your company in the simplest terms. Even sitting out together in the garden for an hour or two on a warm sunny day can help them feel that life is worth living.
Look carefully at local social options and introduce ideas gradually in conversation.
Develop ideas slowly. If a parent tries out a social option once and seems unsure about repeating it, don’t make a huge issue of it. They might just need more time to adjust.
If you’ve been spending a lot of time with a parent, don’t think you’re relinquishing responsibility by encouraging them to socialise. See it as guiding them in a more positive direction.
Don’t push or cajole them into new neighbourly friendships. Outgoing people will find their social level quickly, but shyer people need more time.
If they’re adjusting to reduced physical capability, be patient if they don’t show much interest in socialising at first. Consider how it must feel to adapt to such changes; after all, you could be in the same situation one day.
Don’t dismiss everyday pursuits, no matter how mundane they seem, as ‘a waste of time’. If Dad likes tinkering around in the garage for hours with no visible result, and it gives him pleasure, this is much more important in the long run.
The above is an extract from Time to Help Your Parents by Jacky Hyams.