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What can we learn from the elderly?

Lynda Lampert
in Psychosocial/Cultural
Photo: iStockphoto

I remember her wheeling herself down the hall of the nursing home, her feet pulling the chair towards me.  She clutched her purse straps tightly in her hand, a prop that she was loathe to be without even in her advanced years.  She saw me coming down the hall, bleary-eyed and ready for my shift.  This resident did not remember many things.  She would not remember the times we had together getting her ready for bed or changing her depends.  Or so I thought.

"Excuse me, miss," she said to me as I approached.  I smiled because I genuinely did like her.  I grabbed her hand and bent down to look into her rheumy eyes.  She blinked at me.  "Oh, I know you.  You're my friend."

I laughed because I honestly didn't think she was there enough to remember anything.  "Yes, dear, I am your friend."

She squeezed my hand.  "Then get me the hell out of here."

As nurses we often have the opportunity to interact with the older population.  This resident was often difficult, not remembering much of anything, but she didn't lose her sense of humour.  Considering that she was trapped – in her mind – in a nursing home, that says something for her ability to adapt and overcome.  We are fortunate to get to know these elders, even when their minds are not quite there, because seniors have a great deal to teach us that can help us in our daily lives.

We all know the patients who have smoked their whole lives and are as fit and healthy as anyone.  However, these patients are few, and those who have stopped smoking are more likely to end up toddling around their house at 90 years old.  Elderly people can teach us how to live healthy.  Many of them smoked in their early years and gave it up.  Some seniors lived a lifetime at a healthy weight and only put on the pounds as they aged and could not get around.  You rarely see someone who had been heavy their whole life live to an age over 80.

SEE ALSO: Cognitive Ageing

Most of the elderly we care for did not smoke, kept their weight in check, and ate a healthy diet.  If they had a heart attack or stroke, they were mild and obviously survivable.  This speaks to a lower cholesterol and blood pressure than their peers who died younger.  The elderly that thrive today also kept active, chasing after grandchildren or dedicating themselves to volunteer work.  These are not women and men who take it easy, drink, smoke, or eat to excess.  They knew how to live healthy, and so they have longer lives.

The elderly have had to deal with the loss of many things. One of the most important losses they can teach us about is how to deal with the loss of a loved one.  Seniors initially have to deal with the loss of their parents, but most have dealt with the loss of a spouse. They have watched their loved ones die, and yet they are still able to keep going. It is this indomitable spirit from which we can learn.  Some seniors have even weathered the devastating loss of a child.  In their eyes, they have seen many hardships, but they learn how to adapt to the sorrow that inevitably comes with life.

Older people must deal with the loss of function, as well. Whether it is the loss of hearing, which is common, or the inability to use the toilet themselves, the elderly have to accept that their body do not work in the way they are accustomed. What would seem like a mortifying event to us, such as soiling ourselves, is something they have to deal with every day. We can learn from them how to accept the hardships of life and the many minor injustices in life to keep a positive attitude. Some older people do not have a positive attitude, but many do despite the hardships that a long life has visited on them. We could learn from them to deal with how life treats us and smile anyway.

Help. Dependance. Need. Many elderly people live with these realities of life, and yet they have found a way to accept the simple fact that they need others. For some, the transition might be hard. They may struggle with the idea of asking anyone for help. Whether it is the need for help with physical skills, such as toileting or walking, or simply not understanding the technology that is now so much a part of our lives, seniors must ask for help, or they will not be able to keep up. As adults – and as nurses especially – we take pride in our independence.  Some day, as these seniors remind us, we may not be able to do for ourselves and others as we'd like. If we take the quiet, calm, accepting route that our elderly patients take with us, we may learn more about this skill before we are too old to appreciate its significance.

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