Aging Independently

Image of 3 aging adults, one male (in front) and two female in a wooded area holding their hands in different positions doing what appears to be Tai Chi.

We all have a desire to be as independent as possible. Independence is something we strive to achieve, starting at a very young age, and to regain as we grow older. It is quite a journey learning how to manage to ask for and need help while maintaining your independence.

As an individual ages, it might feel like some of their independence is being taken away due to various health conditions. However, independence is not being stolen as one ages, it just looks different. As a family member or caregiver, it is important to understand how to keep fostering independence even as a loved one gets older.

Here are some ideas to help you keep independence in mind when caring for an older adult:

Always keep the individual in mind when making decisions. Often, as a person ages decisions must be made about personal care, healthcare, finances, and living environments. It is important to always ask the individual how they would like these decisions to be handled. It can be helpful to have these conversations before an individual’s health declines. When family members or loved ones are making decisions, think about what the individual would want and try to honor that as best as possible.

Find a way for them to still be involved in the family or activities. Even as a family member ages, they are still a critical part of the family. Find small ways for them to stay involved in family activities. This could look like having family members visit frequently, giving the individual time to share family stories, or making sure they still attend family celebrations like birthdays. If there is a family gathering, find small ways for them to be an active participant. This could look like them helping with the cooking or setting the table. It is important for the individual to know that even though they may have new health issues, they are still a part of the family.

Ask permission before helping with daily activities.  It can be so easy to help with daily activities such as getting dressed, feeding, or personal hygiene. It is always important to ask the individual if they would like help before offering it. This could look like saying “Would it be okay if I helped you get dressed today?” This allows the individual to still be in control and have a voice in their care.

Find small ways for them to have a voice in their care. An individual should always be an active participant in their care. This can look like them explaining to a healthcare professional how they have been feeling instead of talking for them. It can also look like explaining care before it happens, so they know what to expect. You can also ask if they feel comfortable with the treatment plan that has been proposed. Whenever possible, it can be helpful to offer choices. This can look like offering different options of clothes for them to pick out to wear, or asking what type of food they would like to eat.

Explain the various aspects of care to them. Anytime care is being provided it is important to explain what is happening, how they will feel during the care, and how they might feel afterward. This could also look like explaining what you are going to do to help them. For example, if you are helping them get dressed, you could tell them which piece of clothing you are going to put on first and talk them through the process of getting dressed. You could also explain which medication they are taking before giving it to them.

Have difficult conversations before health conditions deteriorate. It is never easy having conversations about a loved one aging but the sooner you have the conversations it will benefit everyone involved. If any individual can explain how they envision their care in the future, it helps loved ones to know how to best care for the individual. Also, it allows the individual to have a voice in their care and make clear decisions about future planning.

Independence should also be at the forefront when making decisions. We are always striving for independence especially as we age. With clear communication and expectations, we can maintain that independence even as we get older. Independence doesn’t go away with each stage of life but just looks different. Independence gives everyone the chance to feel like their voice matters no matter their age.