by Melisse Ogilvie, Social Worker
Like many children and grandchildren, I automatically fell into the role of carer for an elderly relative. With the assumption of this role, I was forced to take a moment to reflect on the ageing process and how it has impacted my relative and me.
Although ageing is a natural process that we all have to go through, often we do not think about it until it is upon us. As youngsters we looked forward to getting older; it was exciting. But when we approach middle age, and the physical changes start becoming noticeable, such as grey hairs, wrinkles and possibly physical impairments, many are often unprepared for this.
I believe the hardest adjustment in this process, is moving from being active, healthy and independent individuals to having to embrace changes, such as diminished levels of functioning and increased dependency. For the caregiver, this might also be hard to come to terms with.
The age-associated changes that occur in cognition are sometimes mild and does not have to affect daily functioning. But some people experience progressive decrease in cognitive functioning which is sometimes brought on by illness. The slower reaction times, decreased problem-solving abilities and lapses in memory can be frustrating and overwhelming for both the elderly and their caregivers.
While some elderly are fortunate to be in good physical health, it is common to experience physical changes and health issues. We can expect to see a decrease in bone and muscle mass and muscle strength. Health conditions such as hearing impairment and visual changes and chronic conditions like, stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes are typical. These health issues often exacerbate the ageing process. This might be one of the most challenging aspects of caring, as this compounds the physical and emotional needs.
We often talk about the obvious changes experienced, but we do not always consider the psychological impact of these changes. The psychological effects can begin as early as at the time of retirement. For some people, retirement alters our identity, status, self-esteem and friendships. The changes in lifestyle, loss of friends and family can lead to social isolation, feelings of loneliness, rejection and loss of purpose in life.
It is quite normal for moods and emotions to be affected in the process, but we have to recognise when there is decreased self-esteem. This negative view of self affects how the individual copes with the changes and challenges of growing old.
As I walk this journey with my relative, it is consoling to see that in the midst of all the physical and cognitive changes, her personality remains intact. We have to constantly ensure that we remember this aspect of those in our care, and encourage them to be themselves, enjoy their lives in spite of the changes.
Let us all remember that the ageing process is inevitable but how we face this depends on the quality of life we live, our outlook and the support around us. Each day, let us be optimistic about the future and growing older.