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not all old people are nice

not all old people are nice, essay by Andrea Hurley

by Andrea
December 28, 2014

Not all old people are nice. I know this is an obvious statement, but I usually don’t say this kind of thing. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that in our writing, Judy and I focus on the positive, placing little focus on anything negative about others, especially old people—who I always respectfully refer to as elderly people—not old people. But lately I’ve been feeling more rebellious. I don't know, maybe it was my reaction to that scrooge of a fellow who lives in the assisted living home where my mother lives—the one who recently made a huge drama because my mother was sitting in "his" usual seat in the dining room (because "her" usual seat was taken). In response to his aggressive insults, my mother quietly and with dignity moved to another seat, while I said to him, "Hey there, be nice." I then swallowed my pride and said that I was sorry that this had upset him—as no reasoning could have possibly reached him. I then watched as a potential drama was averted by my mother's quiet disinterest in engaging this man's ill temper. The agitated atmosphere in the dining room simmered down, and suspended conversations amongst the other residents resumed. Still, this unanticipated encounter with such a grumpy old fellow left it's mark. Not all old people are nice.

A few days earlier Judy and I were interviewed by author, speaker and international cancer advocate, Joni Aldrich. She asked us several thoughtful questions about our blog and our caregiving experience, and together we went on a journey of self inquiry, which is really an inquiry into life itself. What we didn’t expect, however, was that Joni would ask us a question that would be difficult to answer. Having been writing for over two years now, Judy and I are usually pretty facile with questions about our caregiving experiences, but this one was different, as Joni warned us it would be. She asked, “It’s clear that you are both blessed with kind mothers. What do you say to other caregivers who are not so fortunate, caregivers whose parents are difficult and not easy to be with?”

Judy and I paused for a moment. It is true that not all elderly parents are nice or easy to be with. Some are difficult, selfish and unhappy, as was E. Scrooge (before his remarkable transformation) or the gent I described above. What I said to Joni was that what has made a huge difference in my own journey with my mother during difficult and challenging times was the effect of focusing on even one very small spec of light, even when everything else seemed so dark. That spec of light is not always in the form we expect, like a smile or a kind word, but it might be hidden in the quiet effort to walk, or the struggle to get out of bed or up from a chair, or the heroic effort to get dressed. That quiet effort is no small thing. I remember several years ago, after my (then 93 years old) mother had a terrible fall and was home from the hospital recovering. I watched her try to get dressed one day. Everything hurt but she did not complain. It must have taken her 5 times longer to get dressed, but she did not give up. She quietly made effort. I remember feeling my heart grow and soften as if the warmth of some hidden light was making its way from her noble effort to my soul. And even though I was caring for my mother for several months full time during this recovery, and was challenged in every way possible, I felt so deeply happy and free. There was nothing more I wanted to do.

So what do I say to caregivers who have difficult elderly parents? Even if you have to swallow your pride or bite your tongue at times, find and give attention to that photon of light, wherever it may be. Don't engage in dramas. Leave those dramas alone so that they don't grow inside of you. Then wait. Let time do its work. This might make all the difference to your parent's final years. But even if it doesn't, it can change your own inner world and free you from the spell of victimization, and leave you with a deeper happiness than you ever thought possible—even as your caregiving responsibilities remain really, really hard.

This path takes heart and strength. Even if we don’t think we have enough heart and strength (which is often the case), we have to do this anyway. As with love, heart and strength beget greater heart and deeper strength. This is the path—and the gift—of the true caregiver. It can be a hidden treasure.

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