Belonging and Aging

In this article, I will be examining the concept of belonging, i.e. relationships with family, friends, and community as it relates to the aged individual.

There is a classic study by the researchers Lowenthal and Haven who qualify the importance of a caring relationship as a buffer against, what they declare “age-linked social losses.”

The above study reminds me of a patient who epitomized the concept of age-linked social losses with the following remark: “I feel so incomplete and without my mother or wife, I wonder how often I have made a fool of myself and no one would tell me.”

Maintenance with a stable and intimate relationship is more closely associated with good health and high morale than a high level of activity or an elevated role status. In other words, one seems to be able to manage stress if the relationship is close and sustaining. But if it is not, then prestige and keeping busy may not always prevent depression.

An intimate, confiding relationship can be a buffer against stress and illness. Social bonding increases health status through, as yet undetermined, physiologic pathways. Belonging suggests a network of kin, friends and acquaintances that can sustain the old and give life meaning.

I recently found an analogy that can be applied to the subject of old age, and as it relates to the concept of belonging. It pertains to a tree that withstands storms and drought through an extensive root system which provides stability and nourishment. However, in order to keep it thriving, the ground around the tree must be continually tended.

Role reversal can, however, erode that social support if and when an adult child is often reversing their role with parents and when that parent becomes fragile and dependent in their later years. This can eventually have a demeaning effect and where the elderly parent can become, in the eyes of an adult child, a child again.

The research declares that more than six million people need and get some form of assistance from family and friends that allows them to live at home. In fact, relatives provide 85% of all care to elderly males and 79% to females. More than 1 in 3 elderly men need assistance and are cared for by a wife, while only 1 in 10 disabled elderly women are cared for by a husband.

If an aged parent is beginning to need help, the following suggestions to family members may be useful:

  • Involve the parent in all decisions that affect their care.
  • Assist the elderly parent to remain as independent as possible.
  • Provide only for those things that are especially stressful or depleting.
  • Seek resources that provide options between independent living and facility placement.

If an adult child is planning on welcoming an aged family member to their household, the questions that need to be considered and that may be fraught with conflict, might be the following:

  • How to respect everyone’s privacy such as use of bathroom facility and its availability without causing a scheduling conflict.
  • How to designate space allocation in that home.
  • What furnishings can be fitted into the living space provided, such as a favorite chair, books, etc.

Louise Aronson, professor of geriatrics at the University of California succinctly stated in a recent New York Times article, “Life is different in our old age and that old age can be just as meaningful and enjoyable as earlier adulthood, but even better.”

The literature declares that those who are more positive about growing old are significantly less likely to mentally decline over the next five years. If the statement truly“holds water,” it is important to foster in our lives “the power of positive thinking.” Consider: brighter tomorrows are always possible!

Quotable quote: “When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves” – Wm. Arthur Ward.
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