Over the summer, I play softball with a bunch of other women in my town. I am older than and not as nimble as my younger teammates. Even if I were, I’ve never been particularly athletic. But, they let me play and I enjoy my time on the field. Granted, I am always a bit worried that I am going to mess up, but even when I do, someone is there to back me up and we keep playing. I am part of a team. That is what teammates do.
One day, I was to play catcher. Usually, when I catch and there is a play at home, the pitcher backs me up. To be honest, actually, she usually makes the play. Maybe because she is closer or maybe because whoever is throwing the ball has seen me catch so they throw to her instead. On this particular day, someone forgot that I was not a great ball player and they threw the ball to me for a play at home. Miracles happen, and this day I caught the ball and the runner was out. My teammates exploded with praise. For the rest of the game, everyone was patting me on the back and remarking at what a great catch I had made.
After a little while, it occurred to me that if the pitcher had caught the ball, there would have been a nod of approval and the game would have continued. She did not warrant the same kind of praise because everyone expected she would make the catch. I was being applauded not because I caught the ball but because they didn’t think I could.
This made me think of our family members, our residents, and our clients. When someone gets old and has a harder time doing what they used to do, all of us in the eldercare field sing their praises. We tell them how impressed we are that they are still walking instead of using a scooter, still writing their own checks, or even still ordering their own meals. We overdo the praise to the point that we probably make them as uncomfortable as I felt on that softball field. We treat them as if they are incompetent. Worse, we try to take responsibility away from them by offering them help when they could manage on their own. We encourage dependence instead of making it easier for them to continue to care for their own affairs.
I was speaking to one resident recently about getting a homemaker. She said, “What else am I going to do all day? I will accept help when I need it, but for now, cleaning my apartment keeps me busy and gets me a little bit of exercise.”
I think that day on the softball field is a good lesson for us eldercare professionals. We are part of a team, but that team’s success depends on the success of the elder. Let them make the catch at the plate. Let them fail sometimes if it means they get extra playing time. Sit back and watch before leaping in to help. He or she might surprise you. It may take a bit longer, but your elder just might knock one out of the park.
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or firstname.lastname@example.org and www.colonyretirementhomes.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com