Ronni with cbsnews.com Staff and Interns
Older Folks’ Need For Computer Skills

Fear of Getting Old – Part 2: Becoming a Burden

category_bug_journal2.gif In the Comments section on From an Old Woman To Her Son, Maria of Silver Fox Whispers voiced this common fear: “I too am scared of becoming very old and a burden. In the same HSBC survey quoted here yesterday, just over half the respondents said they worry about being a burden to their families in their old age.

As I noted in Part 1, none of us can predict the future, but we can prepare for possible eventualities and the only way I know of fighting fear is to get it out in the open and shine a big, bright light on it and – focus on what we can control.

In the case of potential burdensomeness, good nutrition, regular exercise and keeping our minds active go a long way toward maintaining our health as we get older. But we also need to plan for the possibility that "stuff happens" and we may not be able to go it alone until the end. That means knowing the options, discussing them openly with children and other loved ones, and making decisions together before the need arises.

Life has a habit of throwing surprises our way and we can’t always know what they will be, but living wills and other instruments with instructions on our wishes if we become incapable of living independently are important way to ease our fears of the unknowable.

There is another view of becoming a “burden” I’d like to offer. It comes, as in Part 1, from Ram Dass who after suffering a stroke that left his mind intact, could no longer care for his physical self:

“Dependency is a big hurdle for most people…We value taking care of others, but shun the notion of being taken care of ourselves…Rather than opening our hands to accept what others have to offer, many of us close down when we have to ask for something, making it hard to be grateful, and creating a situation that’s no fun for anybody…

“This is the paradox of what we call misfortune: that so often what we most resist bestows on our lives the greatest, most unexpected blessings. I do not mean this in a Pollyanna sense – none of us, including myself, would wish to be overly dependent on others, or to be unable to care for ourselves.

"I mean simply to acknowledge that when such role changes come to pass, we’re often surprised by benefits, and deep learning, that we would not have anticipated.

“When you meet someone who is dependent but who’s not caught up in all those traps, it’s amazing how light and delightful their dependency becomes. People who take care of someone who’s dependent in that way come away feeling they’ve received a gift.

"And isn’t that really the game of human relationships – that when we walk away, we both feel gifted from having been in the exchange?”

- Still Here, Ram Dass

I know of what Ram Dass speaks in a profound and personal way. As I wrote in the series about my mother’s final days:

“In those months we spent 24 hours a day together, Mom showed me the better, most decent parts of myself. She showed me how to reach for more than I thought I had. She saw to it that I found the best in myself.

“In her last, most important lesson, Mom gave me the greatest gift of my life: She taught me about my own goodness.”

It would have been easier for my mother if she had died quietly in her sleep without the months of her dependency on me, and I would wish that could have been so for her sake. But those choices are not our own to make, and no other event in my 64 years of experience has had such a profound and positive effect on me as caring for my mother around the clock during the last months of her life. She was never a burden from my point of view.

Like Ram Dass, I hope to make it to the grave without dependency, but should that happen, perhaps I can bestow such a gift on those who care for me and not label it a burden.

Fear of Getting Old – Part 1: Memory Loss


Comments

I have already identified the person I want to be with (other than Tom and Gilad)should I become invalid (what a word!!). I learned through the illness and death of my wonderful friend, Charlie, how important it is to reach out for help, and, how beautiful that relationship can be (as you describe about your mother). Caring and being cared for makes life meaningful in the deepest sense - especially in that oh so important time - the end of our lives.

I fear becoming a burden too. I know what you mean about the gift too, and I surely hope that if it comes to that, my family will look upon it as such. Ram Dass was so wise.

This has been a good series, thank you Ronni. Taking good care of ourselves now is so very important. The other responsible step for those of us who are 'getting on' should be to ensure that we have prepared those three all-important documents: a Will, a designated Power of Attorney, and a Health Care Directive ("Living Will"). These can save so many complications for those taking responsibility for us when the time comes.

When I was in my late teens/early twenties I visited daily, at home and in hospital, an aunt who had suffered drug induced menigitis (careless prescribing over my years), she died aged 64 in a geriatric facility and I know that in her more lucid moments she thought she was a burden to me. I wish I could tell her she never was.

In Oregon, the only state with a Death With Dignity physician-assisted suicide law, it is possible for a person in the last six months of life to opt out of at least some of those months of "being a burden" on their family. Yet that is rarely the reason given for people applying for a prescription for barbiturates to take to end their lives. Usually people make that request in order to "be in control" of their dying process and avoid pain which cannot be adequately medicated. We await the Supreme Court's decision on whether the needs of the many (all of us will die) outweigh the federal government's need to control the use of "Controlled Substances."

I encounter people in various stages of dependence as someone who works in healthcare. I often interact with them from the point of their coming to grips with the possible necessity of being dependent, to that reality. For some, that can be a long difficult journey; if not in time, in emotional and mental adjustment.

Some are resistant to accepting that dependent state by way of keeping hope, belief for themselves they will get better. One of the fears I hear expressed is of losing independence. I, too, have that fear.

If only we could all take to heart the thoughts expressed above, and then behave accordingly should the need ever arise for us. We would make life so much better for our loved ones.

I, too, have been down that road with a mother who had a stroke. I consider myself fortunate that we had long since established a relationship that made my transitioning fully into caregiver a natural progression. The fact she remained totally mentally competent, retained full communication capabilities was a vital factor.

For those who face the caregiver role with a loved one who has impaired communication and/or mental faculties the challenges can seem insurmountable.

The challenges can be great for a caregiver under any circumstance. When we make it easier for them by our attitude and behavior, we help ourselves.

Whatever the situation, it is especially vital we know our own limitations and how to care for ourselves during that caregiving period.

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