Um, yeah, you are deteriorating.
June 10, 2013 5:03 AM   Subscribe

How can I best support the dear elderly people in my life who can't do what they used to do? Details inside.

So yesterday, I had to tell a man in my church music group that he could no longer participate in the group, after 15 years of loyal service. (We'd seen it coming for a while, and the last performance was ruined because of him.) He sadly agreed that it was the right choice. But I know that for the next few Sundays, he'll be coming up to me and saying, "I feel so bad about that last performance!" And I want to be able to say something comforting, without whitewashing, other than "Um, yeah, it sucked, and I'm sorry it has to be this way."

A similar thing happens with my mother: we'll be talking about various things in the past and then she'll look at me with tears in her eyes and say "And I can't do that activity anymore!!" And I don't know what to say other than "Um, no, you can't, that is true." (Despite being a girl, I have the stereotypical-guy-attribute of treating any complaint as a problem to be solved. And of course, I can't solve the aging problem.)

And this is going to be happening a lot more at my church in the future: I see all the dear people I grew up with, strong, vocal people who accomplished a lot for the church and the diocese, now quietly breaking down and not handling it very well. (Many of them have the stereotypical-baby-boomer attribute of thinking they'd always have it all, and I can sometimes see the bewilderment in their faces as they watch the younger people stepping up and doing what they used to do.)

I would like to be able to say nice things, supportive things, without denying the reality that aging really sucks sometimes. I can't say to people "oh, it will get better" or "it's not so bad". Actually, I do try to be lighthearted about it, and say things like "the first 100 years are the hardest" or "the Lord has a strange sense of humor, doesn't He". That seems to work pretty well. But what are some other things I can say, thoughtful things, things that are appropriate and, to borrow from our prayer book, "respect the dignity of every human being"?
posted by sockerpup to Human Relations (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
"For what it's worth, I admire the way you're handling this and consider you a role model for when the same kind of disappointments and decisions inevitably come my way."
posted by carmicha at 5:13 AM on June 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

Compare to careers in sports. Professional athletes have shorter careers and the reasons why they end are the same, but they can be handled without so much feelings of detoriation or decay. Old man had a 'good run' in your choir, much like some famous middle-age athlete that fits to his world.
posted by Free word order! at 5:14 AM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

How will you want someone younger than you to handle this when your turn comes?

a) Try to feel less like you need to solve the problem. Empathy is good -- no, you're not solving the problem, but you are hearing them. You are validating their frustration. "I know. It sucks. You must really miss [activity]."

b) Find them something else where they can feel like they're contributing. Don't suggest this thing when they're actively complaining -- "Oh, I know you miss singing, but wouldn't you enjoy sitting at the membership table during coffee hour?" No. But if you suggest that at another time, it might give them a new activity they can enjoy and feel productive with. (Ideally this is something that is legitimately necessary and useful, not busy-work.)
posted by pie ninja at 5:26 AM on June 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

I read in a Miss Manners column in the early 90's that when someone tells you a story you've heard many times before you can say 'I just love that story' instead of 'I've heard this one already'. I've been looking for things like that to make my responses to people a little more kind and elegant ever since. Like you I'm often stuck when trying to think of better responses than the one's I have.

Eric Ericson's last stage of psycho-social development is maturity and the short summary of it is:
"Older adults need to look back on life and feel a sense of fulfillment. Success at this stage leads to feelings of wisdom, while failure results in regret, bitterness, and despair."

If you can find a way to praise their experiences, tell them we need older people's insight or patience, I think that's part of the answer.

You have given us so much. You deserve a rest. We are inspired by your accomplisments, determination, etc.
posted by logonym at 5:30 AM on June 10, 2013 [25 favorites]

I used to belong to a mom's group that met twice a month. We met at a church and were seated around various tables, 6-8 women at a table. At each table, however, we had a mentor -- an older woman who had been through all of the things we were going through.

The mentors were a real treasure to have in our group and they contributed so much to the experience. I think that they enjoyed it too, because we acknowledged their wisdom and sought input and advice from them.

I wonder if you could make your church music group into two parts -- the performers and the mentors. A lot of older people are lonely, and they enjoy the social interaction. You could still involve them in the social aspect of your group. You could also have them come to rehearsals and offer feedback/encouragement. Everyone would benefit.
posted by Ostara at 8:02 AM on June 10, 2013 [12 favorites]

There's a tendency to focus on all that you've lost as you get older, especially if you have a lot of time on your hands, which is often the case if you have health problems. But it helps to focus on what you can still do, which is often mentoring and teaching of various kinds. If he can't participate in the choir, he may be able to help someone else practice or learn. And older people often feel a pressing need to pass on what they've learned, so mentoring is often a good fit for them.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:17 AM on June 10, 2013

Speaking specifically to this man: I have a lot of experience with this scenario, where someone loses their capacity to sing well before they lose their desire to. It is difficult and it needs to be handled with sensitivity. If you see it coming, you can start to soften the blow; "Frank, you know we love you, and I'm incredibly grateful for the years of service you've given this group, but it's time to think about retiring. I think it's best if this upcoming season is your last. Are there any works you've really had your heart set on performing?" And then give them a retirement party at the end of the season, have a card where everyone writes their favorite memories of performing with Frank, etc.

As for the ruined performance, this is a church group, right? If your church culture allows for it, there's a possibility that you can reframe it, not as "ruining the performance," but as "leaving it all on the field;" that his dedication to worshiping God through music is so strong that he kept at it even as his desire outstripped his ability, and while that might not have been the best decision from a practical perspective, that dedication and desire is honorable and speaks to his character. It won't change the past, but it can help him be more comfortable with it.
posted by KathrynT at 10:20 AM on June 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

So yesterday, I had to tell a man in my church music group that he could no longer participate in the group, after 15 years of loyal service. (We'd seen it coming for a while, and the last performance was ruined because of him.)

You might also ask your priest to help you evaluate what to say because he may feel that all voices are welcome. Seems strange to have the words "ruined" in your heart, even if you didn't say it aloud. Your priest could help you best represent God's house to the worshiper, since he has been around many people in different stages of health.
posted by Houstonian at 11:33 AM on June 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I sing with a small choir of people who have been serious about music throughout their lives. I'm in my 30s and I think I'm the youngest member by 20 years. The older members have various complaints like failing eyesight, respiratory problems, parkinson's and strokes and that affects their singing. The way we deal with it is that they come to the rehearsals and the social activities if they wish and they make an honest assessment whether they can perform with us. It might help that these people have all been serious musicians in the past and are good at evaluating when they are up to it. I'm not sure if our wonderful conductor helps their decision making.

Yes, this means we don't make as nice a noise during rehearsals sometimes, but I think it's important for our community that we do it this way. Otherwise it's vanity.

Generally speaking, I've worked with a couple of palliative care nurses when I have been involved because they can no longer swallow and are at the end of life. They tend to go for sympathising and stating the person's feelings back - "It's really sad that you are never going to be able to eat food again, and you sound very angry about that". Sometimes it's appropriate to offer solutions, sometimes that's patronising.

I would stay away from saying things like 'but you had a good innings' or 'you've contributed so much and you deserve a rest' because they can be read as patronising, and I know from your question that that's the last thing you intend. Maybe think about it as if you had a road accident tomorrow and broke your leg so badly that you permanently couldn't move very well and were told you couldn't do your favourite hobby any more because you were holding the team back. That would deserve empathy about how awful it was and acknowledging of your feelings of grief and frustration and anger, however right that assessment was. You might appreciate offers to let you sit on the sidelines, or that might prompt you to tell them exactly where to go . . .
posted by kadia_a at 12:33 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does your music group need a librarian, someone to keep the books/sheets sorted, filed neatly etc? This is not a general cure, but perhaps it would help that man continue to enjoy the society of the group if you are worried about his being old and lonely.
In the main, there is nothing you can do to soften the blow of a person's being rejected. It happens. It happens especially for the reason of age. How you have handled this seems about as gentle as is possible. Thanks goodness the man was self aware enough to know that his time was past.
posted by Cranberry at 1:03 PM on June 10, 2013

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