Round Table Discussion Group
- Positive Gerontology: Well-Being & Psychological Strengths in Old Age, Wozniak & Jopp, Gerontology & Geriatric Research, Volume 1, Issue 3, 2012
- A Program of Positive Intervention in the Elderly: Memories, Gratitude and Forgiveness, Ramirez, et al, Aging & Mental Health, 2014, Vol 18, No 4, 463-470
Everyone has a story – a narrative. It is the collective set of memories that we hold to be true about ourselves. How we interpret those memories, either with gratitude or bitterness may be the key to being adaptive to the changes of aging. Both articles express the notion that despite the many losses associated with aging, paradoxically, many older adults adapt to the changes and may in fact be happier in their oldest old years, than their younger counterparts.
As so often is the case in the Round Table Discussion Group, the journal articles are merely a jumping off point for our discussions. And so the conversation began by talking about how every older adult frames and filters their own story, often with negative feelings associated with events or people or about oneself. As clinicians, helping reframe these stories is often an important aspect to working with older adults. The gist of the article on memory and forgiveness was about finding and bringing to the surface positive memories, and the power of forgiveness as one facet of letting go of negative memories.
I’m not convinced that resurrecting positive memories and forgiving long-held resentments is the single answer to being adaptive. While it certainly can’t hurt to pursue activities of life-review and letting go of long ago hurts, I’m more inclined to think that adaptation has more to do with a certain set of personality traits about how to accept changing needs of independence. And so the conversation cycled to changes in independence and loss of control as one’s world becomes progressively smaller and smaller.
I had an important lesson in loss of control this past week while visiting a beloved family member in her assisted living home. Stationed in her wheel chair, a change in status which she has accepted easily, she kindly asked for help in some small things – putting food away in the refrigerator, moving a lamp or putting a book away on a shelf—no matter how I did it, it wasn’t as she had envisioned the task and she lashed out with “Why can’t you do it the way I told you, no one ever listens to me.” I have certainly heard these words before from her, but as she sat in her “home” with her world so dramatically diminished and with so few ways to make meaningful choices in her life, I realized the necessity for her to exert her authority over the small things. The lesson was mine in not being stung by her outburst.
The Round Table Discussion veered to the oft (and over) used concept of finding meaning and purpose for an older adult, whether it be in senior centers where newly retired and the young old congregate or in nursing homes and memory care units for frail elders. Hopefully each of us is going to find the particular role that provides us with meaning, whatever our circumstances – a revered grandparent, the gentleman who can make someone laugh or the woman who simply holds your hand. It is hard work to accept that one’s role is no longer the esteemed professional or the active community volunteer. The comment was made in the group, that no matter who we are, no matter the limitations – physical or cognitive – each individual has their integrity.
That idea was so resonant for me and captured why I find working with frail older adults so meaningful because it digs deep to find the essence of a person and so ultimately it is about making human relationships – the ability to extend myself and to receive the gift of a meaningful human and compassionate interaction.