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What Makes Aging Parents The Happiest?

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Aging brings many changes but one thing we all have in common at any age is the need for connection and a sense of purpose in our lives as adults. As people age, they sometimes feel a loss of purpose. We, as family members can do something about that.

Some habitually unhappy folks are not going to be any different as they age and you have no control over that. But for everyone else, we can learn from those happy elders who manage to smile at the smallest things.

Losing independence, which most elders are going to experience to one degree or another from just living long, can lead to an accompanying loss of purpose. For example, a Dad who could always fix things, or lead the way for the family, or drive, finds himself unable to do things as before. He can certainly get depressed about the loss. And a Mom who perhaps always hosted and cooked for family gatherings, pursued a hobby or enjoyed going out just can’t manage these things anymore with declining physical abilities. She seems so ‘”down in the dumps” as this happens.

What can families do to help keep their aging parents from losing the joys of life? No one can stop the march of time and what aging takes from us. But we can step up our efforts to stay in communication, visit as much as we can and talk about good times. We can create experiences, carefully thought out, to accommodate an aging parent’s impairments, that all can enjoy.

Just spending time with an aging family member is quite important. It does not matter if Mom forgets you were there by the next day due to her memory loss issues. What matters is that you showed up. She will feel it even if she forgets things. That connection is one thing that does create happiness for most people. While it may seem tedious to you that Dad repeats the same story over and over because he can’t remember he already told you that, you being attentive, regardless, can be a source of joy for him. Your patience can actually create a happy experience for him. He may not know he’s repeating himself but your listening, nodding and smiling at the right time helps him feel connected to you. You can do this in person and you can do it on a screen, something we’ve gotten used to during Covid.

It also does not matter if a planned experience for an aging parent is exotic or expensive. Your aging parent wants to be with you if he or she is still able to know what’s going on. You could go to a park or ordinary restaurant and the end result might be the same for the elder as a stay in a beautiful place far from home: she’s happy to see you, feel your presence and most of all feel attended to. Your attention to an aging person is what matters to them.

What I observed early in my former career in nursing, doing home health care, is that my older clients who were the happiest had something to do every day. One woman in her 80s, low income, with impaired mobility was very happy and told me about it when I visited to address some health issues she had. She was involved in her community of seniors. She engaged frequently in conversations with those around her. She made little things for other people and gave them as gifts. She paid scant attention to what was wrong with her body and lots of attention to what she had that was good in her life. She loved visitors. That gave her a sense of connection and purpose. I will always remember that lesson. If your elder is not a good planner or initiator, you can offer something to do. You can schedule simple things that give him something to look forward to in his days. Visit. It matters.

Whatever your aging parent has loved to do in the past will likely still be a source of joy in the present, particularly if photos or other mementos are attached to it. You, the adult child can make a point of bringing out the photo albums and going over them, recalling any stories about the experiences. Maybe they enjoyed playing cards, going to movies or other things still possible with parents who have impairments. Make an effort to schedule these when feasible. Being with you may be more significant to your loved one than the actual movie, restaurant meal or card game.

As no one guarantees us a tomorrow, consider that promoting small joys may be the best thing you can offer an aging parent in the waning years or months of their lives. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can offer than makes a difference to them. They will feel that connection to you that leads to happy feelings. Imagine yourself in their shoes—knowing that life is short, some things they always liked to do are slipping away, and what is left are the people they want to be close to now. They may never say it out loud. But it is part of our shared human experience to be connected socially. And for you, the family member, doing these things will give you a sense of peace after your aging parent is gone. You can look back and know you contributed to that person’s happiness and sense of connection. It is well worth your efforts.

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