Serious content alert! A luncheon conversation did it again – set me to thinking about one of the important themes of my book, Your Room at the End: Thoughts About Aging We’d Rather Avoid. In this particular case, it has to do with knowing when you really are “too old” for a task or activity. I’m not talking about a physical thing here, although that certainly does happen. Being no longer able to carry an heavy object or climb up on a ladder without the real risk of falling, or something of that nature, is in a way, easier to accept because there is a physical impediment that can be defined. In other cases, as in this particular discussion, it is the far more distressing point of discovering that you may no longer have the mental acuity to manage a specific task or set of tasks. Worse, is having other people tell you that you are no longer able. Most of us like to believe that we will recognize that point and gracefully hand over the reins, maybe make a bit of a joke. If you haven’t experienced this with an older person in your own life, talk to someone who routinely works with the elderly and run that one by them. One of the things that I learned in working through writing Your Room was to acknowledge the fear (that is often accompanied by anger) of “becoming useless”, and especially of being pushed aside because someone perceives you in that manner.
What does one do about this? What I have come to believe is that a genuine analysis of a situation is the starting point and if you can’t objectively analyze, then ask for another “pair of eyes”. Is it that an individual can no longer do a task or that the individual can no longer do the task as quickly or as efficiently as before? There is a difference and it might be a big difference. Managing a checkbook is an example. Perhaps the individual was once meticulous in maintaining a checkbook down to the penny. Maybe that individual now labors much longer over the task, asking for you to double check their math, perhaps forgetting sometimes to enter a debit or deposit. If it is only occasionally, and doesn’t cause an overdraw, is it really time to consider taking away the management of the checkbook? Now, if there are multiple missing entries, and especially confusion about the missing entries (or duplicate entries), that’s probably cause for concern.
There are no easy answers here, no “one size fits all” measure, but what I would suggest is that if you do quickly reach in to “help” with something or become impatient because a previously simple task now requires double or triple the time, that you step back and try and view the situation from the other individual’s perspective. You may find that you are too quickly leaping to the conclusion that someone is “too old” for a task. If you are correct, however, try to handle it with as much dignity as possible for the other person.