Everyone eventually has physical challenges as he or she ages. Many of my girlfriends and I started having arthritis or other painful hand issues as early as our late 50’s or early 60’s, and we sure did not consider ourselves old! I have had a mostly paralyzed leg from polio since I was three, so am aware of hidden difficulties, and also know that people with disabilities or physical challenges often don’t like to bring them up. Frequently people feel that admitting these issues is also conceding to aging, or that people don’t want to hear about physical problems. Well, no one likes to hear a lot of grousing, but it’s important to know if our relatives or friends need a little compassion or assistance.
- Pain or weakness is not always obvious. People have different pain tolerances, and sometimes people will put up with pain and try to hide it until there is physical detriment which might not be reversible. Tendinitis (painful tendon) can be healed with rest and physical therapy, and tendinosis (permanent damage to a tendon) requires making adjustments to live with it. If your friend or relative is limping a little, that’s almost always due to pain or weakness. Please don’t say, “Oh don’t let it bother you, just keep walking.” Shorten the hike and kindly ask what the problem is. A trip to a doctor may be in order.
- People in wheelchairs hate to be patted on the head, just as deaf people don’t like to be shouted at. These are condescending actions. Patting someone on the head when they are seated is treating them like a child or a pet. Additionally, it’s hard on one’s neck to talk to people at length when they are standing above you. So sit down in a chair where you’ll have direct eye contact and relate on a more equal basis; if it’s just a brief set of comments, squat next to the person.
- Many disabled or challenged people hate to ask for help unless it’s a dire circumstance, such as a fall. I need assistance much of the time, and rather than ask for it constantly, I save up my requests for the most significant needs. Mom may find shopping more difficult, or not be able to lift things as “light” as ten pounds. I finally learned to ask for carrying out help at the market, rather than keeping up the pretense that I didn’t need help. When someone casually asks, “Need a hand?” it’s easy to say “Yes.”
- “I don’t want to be seen on a mobility scooter but I sure wish I didn’t have to walk this far.” When I realized I was starting to need a scooter, I was an accountant and went to three-day tax seminars, which were held at huge convention centers or hotels. It’s never been easy for me to walk the distances other people can, and these big venues became exhausting for me. But I had a biased mindset that people who used scooters were either obese and lazy, or giving up on themselves, and that walking was always good for me and others. I had a prejudice about disabilities, even though I had one! Walking is not always good for people if it causes pain or exhaustion. I tried renting scooters on vacations, and had a much better time! I eventually bought a folding one that comes apart which I can lift into my trunk. Mine is a TravelScoot, but there are others; some are heavier and good for rougher terrain but may require a helper, a van or a lift in order to transport them. I saw a guy with a nifty golf-cart-looking one recently; it was red, streamlined, had a windshield and roof, and would be good for the two-mile distance from my home to our nearest shopping center.
- “This house (and/or garden) has gotten too difficult for me to maintain, but I love my home and don’t want to think about moving.” This can be a tough one. If you notice that your mom’s or friend’s place is looking a little dirtier, messier or shabbier than it did in the past, there are a few approaches I’d suggest. One is to offer to chip in when you visit or offer a particular time when you could come by for an hour to help clean, sort, or whatever. If there’s money to pay for extra help, you might say, “I have a great cleaning lady / gardener / handyman I think you would love; I’ll leave the phone number for you,” or offer to make the call. (Word to the wise: My 82-year-old mom refused help from her church, though her eyesight was so bad that she couldn’t see the dirt. She was too proud to have a “stranger” come in.) If things have gone beyond needing just a little help, it’s time to address finding a new and easier home environment; this is especially true if memory becomes an issue. Bring up these kinds of conversations far in advance of when a move or change is needed. Sometimes parents don’t feel comfortable with their adult kids “nosing through the checkbook” or changing things in the home, so a good way to begin this is to offer to help in small ways so that the parent (or friend) feels safe with your participation. We all love our homes to be bastions of privacy and safety. Abrupt changes are especially unsettling the older we become.
Some things about aging are welcome: the freedom from a full time job, or having time to read or see friends more often. But physical difficulties will come to all of us, and they always feel they’ve come too soon. Your gentle non-invasive inquiries about someone’s needs will likely be welcomed and generate a closer relationship!
Francine Falk-Allen, Author of No Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability, and Not a Poster Child: Living Well with a Disability—A Memoir