As featured in North Hawaii News July 9, 2018
Many family members of an older adult struggle with a guilty conscience about not visiting with their relative often enough. In Hawaii, our guilt can be even greater because it isn’t feasible for the average person to fly over for face-to-face visits on a weekly or monthly basis. Sometimes the weekly phone call can even be a bit challenging due to time difference issues.
On top of the internal guilty lectures we may give ourselves, family members or friends who have more interaction with the older relative may make comments (whether intended as a barb or not) that leave us feeling even worse, as well as defensive. This spiral does not lead to a good place, so by the time the direct interaction with your beloved senior is happening, it may feel like a deep chasm has come between you.
The icing on this dysfunctional cake is the inevitable comment from the older adult themselves, questioning where you have been, or asking why you haven’t called or visited. They may even lay on the guilt as a salve for their own loneliness. My concern for caring individuals in this situation is for the way they may feel emotionally beaten up, which could lead to degrees of anger or depression.
In times like these, positive self-talk is critical. Accept that the choices you have made in the past are part of you simply being human. Let go and choose to take a small step today.
You can start with a simple card, note or phone call. Internally hashing out yesterday’s mistakes only breaks down our spirit and leaves us bound to the same negative behaviors. Focusing on what you value, such as family unity and harmony will lead to small steps that increase positive feelings about that goal.
Here are some tips for closing in that chasm and feeling a greater sense of well-being. Phone calls are tricky, as it can be difficult to find relatable topics that keep everyone interested. Questioning the older adult about health issues may make them feel too vulnerable and put them on the defensive, so simply asking what they enjoy doing these days is a nice, open ended start. Keeping the conversation vague, rather than getting into the specifics of their routine, is also a nice way to keep things light.
Ask them if there’s anything you can do to help out. Offering to help be part of the solution does not mean you are the solution. You are simply finding out where their needs are and seeing if you can help delegate some solutions. I think many people are fearful that they’ll get asked to do too much, but more often than not the individual may just need to feel heard and that someone is in their corner. Sometimes the solutions are very simple, but nobody thought to ask.
When the conversations and visits do come to an end, I highly recommend being very clear about your feelings for that person. That’s truly the main reason you reached out, and they will likely appreciate being left with that fact at the forefront of their mind. Words of appreciation and love will leave your time together on a good note.
Ultimately, if you want to maintain family relationships when an older adult is requiring a bit more care, keep your eye on that which you value and make choices that follow that path. We all just want to be a part of something that makes our world a better place, and we have more power than we often realize in which to make that happen.