Little Things Mean a Lot

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By Marianne Delorey

In 1954 Kitty Kalen sang, “For always and ever, now and forever, little things mean a lot.” And so it is when elders are trying to stay independent.

Consider these people:

Sara, an elderly lady with significant vision loss, has learned to get around and can more or less take care of herself. She even learned how to call in an order for groceries and receive them at the door. Her independence, however, was threatened by the tiny stickers that growers and stores place on individual pieces of fruit. She did not think much about it, and had probably eaten many since her vision failed, until one day, a piece of plum with a sticker on it caught in her throat. Her neighbor called 911 for her. When the paramedics arrived, she was just barely getting air. They performed the Heimlich maneuver and were able to clear her throat. Now, once a week after grocery delivery, her neighbor comes in to take the stickers off her fruit. It is a 10 minute service she did not know she needed, but one that keeps her safe in her own home.

Bob is a younger elder, but he has always had trouble communicating. He cannot form words easily, in part because he stutters, but he also had some head trauma years ago so he can’t always come up with the correct word in conversation. His sister has always spoken for him, but her job requires travel and she cannot always come to him when he needs help. When cell phones became a thing, they together sat down and despite their age, learned how to text. It was hard to learn a new skill, and the technology was frustrating at first, but now Bob and his sister text daily. Sometimes the little updates are minor – “I might be catching a cold” or “My car is due for an oil change soon.” But when a crisis hit, the texting became vital. Bob’s sister was away and Bob fell in his bathtub. Bob texted, asking for help. His sister called the fire department and a neighbor with a key. The neighbor stayed on the phone with the sister, who was able to relay information to the paramedics about Bob’s head trauma. Given this information, they knew to get him to the ER for evaluation.

Mac has paranoid schizophrenia. He is usually able to quiet the disturbing noises with medication, but sometimes, those meds are not enough. He hears gunshots and is convinced that someone is trying to kill him. Many days, he is self-aware enough to know that the noises are not real, but some days are worse than others. What makes the situation worse is that he lives in the city and loud noises are common. He is never sure if a noise is in his head or outside his apartment. His therapist, on a hunch, brought him a cat. The therapist clapped loudly and pointed out that the cat flicked its ears at the noise. Over time, Mac started to trust the cat’s hearing and was able to relax slightly in his home. He still needs a lot of help to live in the community, but so far the cat is helping immensely.

All of us in elder care are familiar with the basics of how to keep an elder at home longer – get rid of throw rugs, install grab bars, and improve lighting. But each of us is an individual with different needs. What special tricks have you come up with to keep yourself independent? Write in and give us your best “aging hacks” so others can learn from you.

Marianne Delorey, Ph.D., is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or [email protected] and www.colonyretirementhomes.com.