Friday, February 1, 2019

Caring for Elderly Female Relatives While Supporting Their Right to be Independent

Feminism isn't just for young women or middle-aged women. It's for all women, young and old, and good to keep in mind when caring for an elderly female, especially if they need physical and psychological assistance. It can be tough to provide care while still supporting her right to make her own choices and her ability to be as independent as possible while ensuring she has the appropriate level of care and things still work on a practical basis. Of course, just because something is hard doesn't mean that it isn't worth doing. Let's talk Dos and Don'ts on how to respect autonomy while providing care.

Don't underestimate them.

Many people think of older women as frail, vulnerable, and delicate. Of course, they can be those things, as can anyone, but this certainly isn't always the case. In fact, is it more of a stereotype that comes from patriarchy and ageist bias, and it can mean we often underestimate both what older female relatives can do, and their ability to understand their situation and make decisions for themselves. You know what we do around here with stereotypes that come from patriarchy: smash smash smash. 

The problem with underestimating their ability to understand their situation and make decisions for themselves is that it can lead to taking their independence and autonomy away, aspects of life that are not only valuable but crucial to their sense of self as well.

The problem arises from wanting to provide an adequate level of care and safety for them. However, when this undermines who they are as a person and makes them an outsider in their own lives, it's gone too far.

By not giving older female relatives the chance to live an independent life and make choices for themselves we devalue woman everywhere instead of facilitating a meaningful experience for them in their twilight years. It's crucial that we really see the situation of the individual involved and not let ourselves be swayed by the stereotypes that society has imposed on us and them.

Do make decisions with them, not for them.

While it may be tempting to think of an aging female relative as unable to look after themselves, we also need to remember that they are a wise being that has survived through an entire lifetime of experience. What that means is even if their current circumstances have to change, its crucial that they be involved in this decision, and their voice heard.

Stripping them of this right and making decisions for them (unless they are genuinely unable to do this for themselves) isn't just an insult. It's also a form of aggression. Their advanced age should not mean that their autonomy is compromised, and it only takes a drop of empathy to consider what we would want if we were in the same situation as we all will be one day.

Don't forget that they may need some practical assistance in doing everyday things. 

An aging elderly relative will need help and assistance with everyday tasks that they once found easy. I know from helping my Grandmom, a very independent woman, in her last year of life that it is not easy for them to ask for and accept help. The assistance must be provided  in a way that boosts independence rather than compromises it.

How to walk that fine line? Giving them a lift to the senior center so they can get out and see their friends on a regular basis instead of insisting they no longer go because they can't make the walk.

In home, if/when tasks such as cooking or cleaning become problematic, you have to discuss this with them and come up with a solution together instead of just rushing in and taking over. This could be a moderated cleaning and cooking schedule that is easier for them to carry out, investing in a microwave so they can buy ready-made meals, spending a quick half hour after a visit taking care of this stuff, or bringing in outside help.

It's really not about the solution, but how you go about instituting it that matters. Enforcing your solution to their problem is certainly not going to be supporting their right to be as independent as possible.

Do discuss other living options with them if living alone is becoming difficult. 

A tough situation that can occur when caring for an elderly relative is when living alone becomes less viable for them for reasons including frequent falls, the need for advanced medical care, or that managing their property is no longer possible.

Sadly, this can be one of the most challenging situations for the older person, because their home is usually a real symbol of the independence and autonomy they have, and to lose this is upsetting.

Discussing other living arrangements with them is the way to deal with this while maintaining respect for their independence. It is crucial to really listen to what the older woman is saying concerning what they want and if at all possible allow them to make the ultimate decision.

It's also important to highlight all of the suitable options including assisted and senior living centers that promote a more independent style of life. In fact, such a choice is often a win-win solution as they have also staff on hand in case they do need a little extra help, or experience an emergency. My Grandmom moved into senior living and it was great that she could walk everywhere and have meals with friends and play cards and even volunteer right on site. I know she felt better not managing her property and my family felt better knowing she was secure and happy there.

Don't withhold relevant medical information from them.

Medical problems are an accepted and expected part of getting older, however, as people that are caring for elderly female relatives, we can often withhold information about their medical status from them because we think it is too upsetting.

Of course, this always needs to be considered on an individual basis, but I would argue that no matter what your age, if you knew you only had a certain amount of time on this Earth, left you would want to know. Not just because it would allow you to make your plans, wrap things up and say goodbye to the ones you love, but also because you are a human being that deserves to know what is happening with your own body and life.

It is extremely important to discuss with people how they would like to be cared for in the end stages of their lives. If an illness is involved, it can be an incredibly awkward conversation depending on the diagnosis and the players, but it must be done and all options laid out on the table. If you don't discuss it, you're not doing anyone a kindness, you're just stripping away another layer of their independence.


Do recognize their wishes when it comes to bathroom functions and intimate care.

One of the most challenging things about getting older can be when you lose the ability to take care of yourself regarding bathroom functions and bathing. These are extremely private activities that no one (bar illness and disability) has had to do for us since we were babies.

Older female relative can really struggle with having to get someone else to do these things for them. For some, it can be hard to have a stranger provide this type of care, but for others, it can be even worse when it is someone they know, love, and have a relationship of mutual respect with.

That's why it's vital to know what they believe is the best way of going about it. It may be easier and cheaper for you give them a bath each day, but if they would prefer to give themselves a bedbath, and have someone come in to provide them with a more thorough clean on a regular basis, then it's crucial that you listen to and act on this if you want to respect their dignity and independence.

Don’t forget to acknowledge and appreciate the influence they have had in your life. 

You may have been lucky enough to have had a right on, radical bra-burning feminist grandmother, mother, sister, or aunt in your life, or your older female relative may have had a more subtle way of being their own person and fighting the patriarchy. However, no matter what their views on the place of women, it's vital that you acknowledge and appreciate the impact they have had in your life.

It is quintessentially feminist to value women as they age instead of writing them off as no longer relevant. It's also crucial from a feminist perspective that we do all we can to love each other as women and build each other up. Something that needs to extend through the generations as well as just across, and even in different types of social groupings. 

You love this woman that is getting older, and whose health may not be what it once was. On a basic human level, showing that love by respecting her autonomy and independence is one of the most important things you can do, for her and for you and to honor the relationship you have.

That concludes our feminist Friday writing over here. Have a great weekend!

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