HOW TO GET ALONG WITH OLDER PEOPLE
Extra useful years have been won for the swelling ranks of Canada's older people. But they can be years of tragedy unless the under-fifties make a fresh attempt to learn
JULIETTE K. ARTHUR
IF YOU ARE under fifty you’re going to find yourself living in a state of constant civil war unless you realize that a new “breed” of older people is developing before your eyes. If you are among the one quarter of our population that’s over fifty, chances are you already know that the battle lines are drawn up.
The apple-cheeked snowy-haired grandmother of fiction, arm-deep in flour and pumpkin pies in an old-fashioned kitchen, still appears on many magazine covers. In real life, however, she is much more likely to take as her model, or at least her mouthpiece, a woman like Mary Heaton Vorse. Mrs. Vorse was well into her sixties when she worked as a war correspondent during World War II. When her juniors tried to make much of that fact she brushed it aside.
“It’s high time,” she said, “that young people stop treating able elderly ones like a nine days’ wonder!”
Newspapers nowadays report the exploits of septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians almost as matter-of-factly as they do wars and threats of wars. The reason is a simple statistical fact. There are so many older people, and there are going to be more. They are increasing more rapidly than any other portion of our population a fact which is bound to have powerful repercussions on your family life.
The 1931 Canadian census showed, for instance, that 344,839 people were over the age of seventy; twenty years later the census showed that this age group had swelled to 652,776. Any startling development in medicine or public health such as a cure for cancer or the heart diseases, which chiefly attack the ageing — would send these figures skyrocketing.
To younger Canadians these statistics reveal the most powerful incentive any of us can have to live on amicable terms with the generation just ahead. Your parents and grandparents may have been able to take their older relatives for granted. You cannot afford to. The ageing people around you, who will probably live ten to twenty years beyond the Biblical three score and ten, are persons to reckon with in ways your father never
knew. They probably have healthier bodies; at a comparable age most of them have livelier minds. They are likely to demand more than the hack seat their elders were content with (possibly because the time was so short between their elders’ mat urity and the grave).
Statisticians predict that by 1975 one out of every four in the population will he sixty-five years old or more. In the meanwhile, we and our elders are caught in a transit ional period. There is much greater tension now between the old and the young than there ever was before, and more reason for it. Unless people under fifty are willing to make the effort to find out why, and then act on their discoveries, life with mother or father, or any other older individual, is going to be a continual st ruggle.
Even the most saintly have asked at some time or other, “Why are so many people difficult to get along with when they are old?” Dr. Erwin Ackernecht, of the University of Wisconsin, believes he has the answer. He said: “Two thirds of old persons feel unwanted and many of them are right . . . The attitude toward old age is contradictory and lukewarm at best, often negative and scornful.”
Psychologically, North America is geared to the young. Movies, sports, advertisements, fashions and most other facets of our life emphasize the importance of youth. Our society, which regards youthfulness as its top asset, nevert heless puts emphasis on an ever-increasing life span. It is expecting millions of old people to be added to the present millions—yet gives them less of a role to play than any other older generation ever had.
In educational circles much emphasis is put on “discovering the child.” We have succeeded so well we are quite self-conscious about the frustrations and complexes of small boys and girls and their adolescent brothers and sisters. But what about the complexes and frustrations of their grandparents and greatgrandparents?
If your elderly relative is unhappy and is “taking it out” on his family, it is probably because he is one of millions of ageing men and women baffled by the swiftness Continued on page 73
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How To Get Along With Older People
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with which family life has altered in just one generation. As young people have moved from the farm into the tight-packed city, more and more older people find themselves alone. We have changed radically from the threeor four-generation family to the twogeneration unit, and there is little
room to expand in a city apartment or a small town house.
If you are under fifty you accept things like the fast-as-sound jet plane as the order of our day. But project yourself forward twenty years or so when there may be rocket flights to space stations in the upper atmosphere —or to the moon. Could you face the undoubted change in living conditions complacently—-that is, if you were invited to share them at all?
This is not a far-fetched comparison. Any individual now seventy is living in a world which never existed when
he was horn, when telephones were curiosities and airplane travel as much a scientist’s dream as space flights are now. He has had to undergo vast technological, cultural and social changes which elders in his own youth never had to face. Yet he is expected to be able to adapt to all of them. Fifty, or even twenty-five years ago, three or four generations could live together, and like it, under a single spacious roof. Today if we make room for them, it may not be grudgingly, but quite frequently it is at a sacrifice. Any sensitive old person feels this painfully.
It is not only at home that the older person’s services are seldom needed or wanted. Economic conditions have so changed in his lifetime that there is a premium on speed and quantity production in which the old lag, and little place for the crafts and slow handwork in which he was trained. Even in the professions accumulated knowledge is quickly outdated.
In more primitive cultures the old man or woman was often eliminated, and accepted disposal with equanimity as being for t he good of t he community. If. on the other hand, lie was regarded
wit h respect he was elevated to the post of magician, priest or sage. In either case, there was finality to the solution.
Wo an* not so realist ic. Though we no longer put our old out to die we expect them to continue to strive to he youthful. A popular columnist summed up t his attitude when he said: “We have little real devotion for our old people . . . We do everything for them; wo are fond of them, we tolerate them, we take care of them, we speak jokingly of their crotchets and frailties we do everything but respect them.” If your ageing relative seems to be a
bewildered individual in a world which revolves chiefly around the young, you can’t expect him to cope with his frustrations, unaided. Unless you do help him overcome them, you, and everyone who comes in contact with him, will also be a loser.
This puts the burden of understanding on the young. You may sigh enviously when you read those articles in women’s magazines with titles like, Why My Daughter-in-Law Loves Me. The author generally claims to be a dear old lady or gentleman who makes a cheerful martyr out of himself by
sleeping on a bumpy davenport, in the living room. When company comes, the older one effaces himself, of course. Usually he retreats to the kitchen. If he is a man, he mixes marvelous drinks; if a woman, she makes equally marvelous sandwiches or cakes. In either case the story ends with the oldster winning everybody’s admiration.
A much better idea would be to see to it that your old encumbrance, if he is that, can have the opportunity which a ninety-two-year-old woman 1 know enjoys. She lives a life of her own. She still lives in her own home, does her own cooking, takes complete care of herself and says to her neighbor: “I’m not going to get old and stiff like some people do!”
If you are going to help your relative to help himself you will need both imagination and sensitivity. The gulf between any tw > generations is so vast that, as Booth Tarkington said once when he was already in his sixties, “By the time we reach middle age we think of our own youthful days as the experience of a generally absurd stranger.”
We all believe we know what children are like because we have already lived through their growing pains. But old age is an unknown terrain. The day when some older person’s attitudes or act ions come in conflict with your own is the day to stop and ask this question: Just what is it that older people want to get out of life?
Years ago the Society of Friends summed up the basic needs of the aged simply and succinctly: “Somewhere to live, something to do and someone to care.”
Older people rightly insist on being considered as individuals. Remember this the next time you speak of “Sally’s aunt” or “John’s mother,” or “the children’s grandfather.” We are all inclined to think of older people only in relation to ourselves. (The most rebellious escape this role and sometimes the only way left to them is the one they take. They kick up a row about something, which shows they are still persons, not merely ancestors.)
If you need any proof that all older people everywhere long for the same satisfactions, reflect on what 2,100 grandmothers set down as their formula for success and happiness. (Their age range was from JO to 91.) For a newspaper survey they listed, in order of their importance: health, financial
independence, separate living arrangements from their children, friends of their own, a hobby or a job and exchange of love and services with younger people.
Dr. (îeorge Lawton, a well-known specialist in problems of the aged, recently interviewed fifty men and women, ranging in age from sixty to ninetv. They thought most old people could be kept off the highroad to gloom and unhappineas if they had these compensations.
Bodily health: This came first.
The fear of being helplessly bedridden and dependent is not confined to any age group, but it can be more poignant when life is running toward its close.
Health of the spirit: A close
second. Other studies have proved that the hunger to be at peace with one’s self, to discover justification for the world’s ills and man’s inhumanity to man, is a regular and striking accompaniment of that phase of life we term growing older. This need may be met by organized religious activity.
A cheerful state of mind: A great many considered that it was important to accept what we cannot alter. The words “be patient” occurred often.
Money: It is a rare old person who lias not learned early in life that money will not purchase his happiness in old age, but these and all other ageing
people want to have enough to cover their bare necessities and be free of concern for the future.
Friends: This word appeared often. Its use is based on the fact that the longer we live the more friends and relatives we survive. It also is a result of the equally sad law of life that we who as youngsters looked for love and support from our elders, seldom need either when they are old and we ourselves are adult.
Work to do: Every normal person wants an occupation as long as he lives, and dreads idleness. One octogenarian who lud accepted a pension with reluctance declared: “Working hard,
playing hard, loving hard that’s what makes people happy!”
Pleasant family relationships: Those who had once enjoyed the warmth and intimacy with close kin and no longer had it wanted to he treated again as an active part of the world, living and struggling with the rest of us.
A chance to watch young people develop: All older people confessed
their pleasure and interest in their grandchildren, and other people’s children when they were on good terms with them. As one seventy-five-yearold man said, “It gives a person satisfaction to be able to see his children and lí is grandchildren grow up and know \ou have had some part in shaping their lives.”
Doing things for others: Not
every person in this or any other group recognizes services as a compensation of old age. But Dr. Lawton’s subjects named this quality an important means of continuing to “belong” to society.
Kindness and consideration: A
number said this was all they sought
and seldom received.
How can you help your relatives fulfill these basic desires without encroaching on the rights of a younger generation? You can do nothing at all unless you put yourself in an older person’s place. To do so, you have to rid yourself of the misconceptions that most of us had hammered into us in childhood. The most important is that to be young is a virtue; to be old is deplorable.
Among the misconcept ions about old age the most common is that old age makes people different. Most of us assume that putting on grandmotherhood or grand fatherhood automatically assures a halo of sweetness and light. Or we take the opposite view: that old age makes people crabbed. Actually, the only thing you can be really sure of is that any elderly man or woman has taken a long time to get the way he is, and he is going to remain that way. The father who was a young autocrat at the breakfast table will remain so. The mother who was frivolous and vain in her twenties is not going ta turn into a self-effacing old granny. And, of course, the opposite has to be true. The man or woman who has always pulled his own oar is going to try to keep on doing it.
The second major misconception is that the old like to be in a safe and cozy nest. This probably accounts for more unhappy relationships than all the rest. No older person likes to have his life planned for him. whether his children tuck him away in an old people’s home, or put him in a gilded cage.
Dr. Lillien J. Martin, who entered the field of old-age counseling when she herself was past sixty-five, and continued in it till she died at ninety-two, used to say many older people are forced into loss of self-assurance by their own offspring.
“Children,” she said, “may coddle :,ged parents, not only out of concern *°r their health and well-being, but also
because they really want their parents to live restricted lives so they will not interfere with young people’s conduct of their own lives and families.” Most older people. Dr. Martin found, are remarkably tough and capable, even if they have physical limitations.
In our anxiety to spare them worry and make them comfortable, most of us put too much emphasis on protecting older people. In the process we run the danger of undermining their initiative. Even more frequently, we underestimate their capacities. Such over-protectiveness is not always for
the sake of the older person. We all tend to make decisions that will spare us worry.
The only safe rule is one every social agency practices. Their workers plan with, not for. old people. They know that well-meant aid vice from the young may seem like patronage or condescension to the old. A man who has earned his own living for four or five decades, a woman who has reared a family, can’t be expected to take kindly to plans devised for their well-being by someone years younger.
The chief breeding ground of friction
is the absence of something to do which will seem important in the eyes of the old and commands respect from those —as one youngster said—who think of old age as “the wilted butt of a burnedout cigarette.”
Don’t expect an older person to accept a seat on the sidelines with good humor. It is no easier at eighty to be told you are “too old” for something than it was for you to give up thumb-sucking at one or two liecause you were told you were “too old” for that pastime. It is more difficult, in fact. For to sit back and accept
direction—very often correction-—from those you used to have authority over in the diaper and romper stage, is a soul-trying process.
Another fallacy is the view that old people expect too much. When we say “tolerance must be mutual,” we usually mean we expect older people to leave off some cherished activity which interferes with one of ours. We would also like them to do so without making us feel guilty or uncomfortable.
Most of us can say of a fourteenyear-old hoy or girl who has difficulty j in adjusting to life: “Well, it is just
because he is an adolescent. He’ll get used to things.” We ought to know 1 that people of seventy or eighty are : also entitled to have periods of adjustment. The reason is obvious: they
have already spent a lifetime accunni! lating habits and patterns.
If an old man refuses to change his ! socks or stop smoking in bed, or an ! old woman won’t change the fashion of her clothes or her cooking, neither is ! doing it, like the baby in Alice in Wonderland, merely to annoy and tease you. They may be biologically too old to change their ways, or they may be making an effort to adjust themselves and haven’t yet succeeded, ïf you force them beyond their strength the result is likely to be a dejected individual, hitter because he j thinks himself useless and unwanted, I often SÍ) miserable he places everybody around him in the same frame of mind.
No old person is like any other old person, but there is one thing on which they all agree. No matter where they live, whether in luxury or in poverty, j they don’t want to relinquish their own identity. If this seems to you to be “asking too much,” consider that, if you live, you yourself will be old some day.
Should you be willing to share your j home with your parents or your inlaws? This is one of the most difficult problems in family relationships that any of us have to solve.
There is no reason to feel guilty if you are apprehensive about sharing ¡ your home. There are other ways of honoring your father and mother be¡ sides giving them a place around your fireside. Nor is there any reason for ! you to feel you must do for your older relatives what they did for theirs. I wo or three generations had a much better chance fifty or even thirty years ago of living amicably together. When households overflowed with children and space there was always ample j work and ample room for a spinster j aunt or an ageing uncle. Today, if someone is needed to help with the housework or the children it usually is not on the living-in basis. Nursery schools and machine-housekeeping have taken away that solace of the old.
The mother-in-law jokes probably had their inception in the fact that people of different ages are better off if they live apart. On the other hand, they can live together successfully if there is an even exchange. It may be the practical advantage of a single overhead with reduction in cost of food,
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In Pierre Loti’s autobiography he describes the happiness and the serenity he derived in his childhood home from the presence of his two grandmothers, his great-aunt Berthe, and his Aunt Claire, each with her own little room. How his mother got along with these four extra women he does not say, but to him, at least, they were a source of endless comfort.
To make a success of a mixed household requires mutual esteem, mutual respect for each other’s privacy as well as joy in each other’s company. Without. all these ingredients nothing will result but turmoil.
In practical terms this means that if grandma wants to stay in the t umbledown ancestral mansion whose wornout furnace eats up coal and whose rooms are too vast for even a slavey to clean, let her do it. At least let her stay till she has a chance to find out that it is uneconomical and unhealthy to cling to a worn-out past. She’ll find out sooner if no one puts pressure, however well-meant, on her. Forcing her out “for her own good” means you are taking a chance on having a disgruntled old woman on your hands the rest of her life.
Similarly, if grandfather wants to stay down on the farm and struggle through the harvesting again, let him fry it. Perhaps he’d rather die in harness than live through what he may consider dull years somewhere else. Or he might be just stubborn enough to believe he knows when to move in his own good time.
The old need t his chance to mull over new proposals. As Dr. A. Kardiner, the psychologist, points out, “Old age is a phase of life with the fewest adaptation possibilities. The plasticity of the ego is gone, as well as the ability to modify the environment.”
So. if your older relative wants to cling to the living quarters where he’s been content for so long—stand up for him. It’s not easy to see why an old man prefers a shabby furnished room to luxury under someone’s gilded roof, but it is better than browbeating him into a move he protests against. If it is you who fear friction, steel yourself to look for another place for a relative to live, even if you have to face family criticism. It’s more than possible your own distaste for too close proximity is shared.
If you need to bolster your conviction by some unassailable facts, examine these results from some recent surveys. They may bring about a change of mind in others of your family if they are mistaking “duty” for what is right.
All grandfathers and grandmothers do not want to be around their children or grandchildren all the time. When the Florida State Improvement Commission asked eight hundred retired persons what their preferences in living arrangements were, these were the answers: About forty-five percent said they preferred to associate exclusively with people their own age; twenty percent preferred the society of younger adults; none preferred the society of children; only twenty-eight percent wanted to associate with people of all ages.
Older people value their own homes first, and privacy at all costs anywhere. When the housing likes and dislikes of fifty ageing people were investigated, this was the interviewer’s conclusion: “These aged couples were reluctant to face the problem of where and how to live in the event that maintaining their own homes was no longer feasible. Actually, living in their own homes was the only preference they could be persuaded to voice. If this arrangement was not
possible, even with the services of a companion, they wanted separate quarters in the home of a son or daughter.”
The best place for older people is wherever they want to stay. This may be—but often is not—with their relatives. Of' the oldsters questioned by Dr. Ruth Shonle Cavan twenty-nine percent of the men and thirty percent of the women who lived in their own homes were well adjusted. Of those who lived in someone else’s home, eleven percent of the men and twentyfour percent of the women had made a good adjustment. The rating of those who called rooming or boarding houses or hotels home was only slightly different twelve percent of the men and thirty-two percent of the women.
I f you are the one on whose shoulders it will fall to make a decision, there is only one safe rule to follow. If an ageing individual doesn’t want to live
with you or someone else, it is more economical, in terms of the eventual strain that will develop on both sides, to help him stay where he wants to be, even if dollars-and-cents expenditure is greater.
Physical or geographical separation is not the same as emotional separation (which can occur even when two bodies occupy the same space, or nearly so). It is still possible to go to the movies or a play or to church together if you live in the same community. If the older person lives far away, you can make him feel he has a real, not a forced part in your own life by writing to ask his advice about real estate or insurance or by confiding your troubles to him. We all need to learn that where a person lives is not the major consideration. Making him know he is valued for what he is and was is all that counts. You can do this through such a simple gesture as asking an old man to write down his memories of family history, or by helping an old woman cherish family heirlooms for her grandchildren. One woman stimulated her whole community when she asked people over seventy to present, arrange and talk about their relics of pioneer days for her club. This exhibition, now held annually, gives young people a chance to see and hear about local history and to respect their elders who shaped it.
Four good rules for getting along with older people—whether they live inside your home or not—can be summarized as follows: 1, Discuss
all grievances openly, even if there’s danger of “hurting feelings;” 2, Don’t turn a blind eye or a deaf ear toward the frustrations of older people; 3, Avoid differences over the disciplining of children; 4, Treat the symptoms of old age with tenderness and understanding.
How can you best help an older individual face reality?
In the first place, prepare yourself for the likely prospect that most older people are wary, if not suspicious, of the enthusiasm of the young for the unknown. This terror of the devils
they don’t know often makes many older men and women willing to endure the devil they do know to the point of discomfort, or actual harm. It may complicate your best-laid plans for placing your uncles or aunts in a well-run boarding home, or even make your parents hold back from moving where there will be an elevator instead of steps to climb.
Yet, if you treat them as if they are too eccentric or too old-fashioned to know what to do, you will only strengthen their conviction that they are being insulted or abused. If you bring pressure to bear through doctors, nurses or family counselors when they are facing a devastating break in longestablished routine, they will feel you are persecuting them.
To prevent this, be candid. Older people can stand more shocks than younger ones think they can. What they can’t bear is to feel baffled and helpless because well-meaning relatives too often act as if crises in family life ought not to be discussed with them.
If you think a change advisable or urgent, don’t be afraid to say so. Tell them how other people in similar situations have met their predicaments. Even the most irascible person wants to feel he is not the only person in his world with trouble. If he lives with you and it is no longer wise or feasible for him to stay, screw up your courage and say so, but give him reasons, not excuses. If he knows you are trying to be honest with yourself and with him, he will listen. Explain why the situation will bring unhappiness if it continues, not only for you or someone else, but for him.
If he is sick and a convalescent home, a nursing home or a hospital seems a better place for him, tell him frankly why you and the doctor think so. It will keep him from feeling his family is conspiring to get rid of him. If he is rational at all, he will want to know exactly what arrangements are being made for him. He deserves to know the pros and cons of this place or that, and have a chance to express his own opinion and know that attention is being paid to his preferences.
The problem of getting along with older people is worth much more than a passing studyfor, even if if doesn’t face you right now, remember that you are going to be “an older person” yourself some day. No one wants to share the feelings of the grandmother who wrote to a leading newspaper: “1 simply can’t understand the attitude of the current generation w-hich my own generation produced. It’s not disrespect. It’s not scorn. Rather it’s utter indifference and disregard.”
The challenge of learning to live in amity with those the world labels “old” concerns us and our families now, and will concern us even more personally when we pass our own sixty-fifth birthday.
There is no formula of the1 “how to make friends” variety which will provide you with a quick solution. But if there can be recognition on the part of members of the family that here indeed “charity begins at home” a genuine start will have been made toward relieving some tensions and difficulties which the old and the young alike frequently experience.
The effects of extreme old age cannot be warded off forever; the machine will eventually wear out. But with the right kind of help from family, physician and community, an older man or woman can postpone physical, mental and emotional decline for years. ir
In expanded form this materia! will be included in a booh, How To Help Older People, to be published later by the ■J. B. Lippincott Company.