Need for relevance can affect experience in care home

Q: About a year ago we talked my mother into accepting her need for support and she got accepted by a long-term care facility.

My husband and I spent more time looking after my mom in her house than we did caring for both our children and grandchildren in our house.

Getting Mom into long-term care was definitely a relief for us, as well as a necessary support for her. However, she isn’t doing well there. She is sad and depressed much of the time and spends just about all of our visit time complaining about aches and pains. We are puzzled. What can we do to help her shed those blues and get back into being the exciting woman we have always known her to be?

A: I am sure that you are aware of the concerns being expressed nationwide for the treatment and care of our elderly who are in long-term care facilities.

Your mom may have lucked out. From what you have said it sounds like she is getting really good care where she is and that has to be a bonus.

However, despite all of the steps forward that your mom’s home has taken, obviously something continues to be missing. Most likely that is the need for meaning and purpose that all of us have built into our neurological survival system.

The truth is that without a special sense of meaning and purpose in any of our lives, we are most likely to fall into personal despair — a sense that our lives are not worthwhile. This is as true for elderly people as it is for anyone else.

Sometimes we forget their need for relevance. We are so busy washing them and feeding them and making sure that they are taking the right pills at the right times that we overlook the need each of them has to be relevant.

You cannot build meaning and purpose into your mom’s life on your own. She needs to be part of the process.

However, you can open some doors for her. Your mom has a rich bundle of stories documenting your family’s historical development. What a bonus that is for any of your children who are willing to sit down and listen to her.

Sharing that family history gives your mom relevance in each of your children and your grandchildren’s lives. It gives her relevance in her own life as well.

You can take your mom shopping so that she alone can decide whether she likes that pretty blue dress in the window display. Imagine her moment of pride, relevance and significance when she gets to wear the dress she chose at your family Christmas dinner. It is worth a celebration of her dignity.

As well, we are living in a world starving for compassion. Many others who are also wandering about her long-term care facility are desolate and lonely. If your mom has a moment or two to reach out to just a couple of them, she is going to brighten their lives while giving herself a little more dignity. The more she shares her compassion for her friends with you and your family the better are the odds that she will rediscover her own relevance in being alive and of service to others.

The list of tasks that could be available for your mother is of course endless — maybe it is just a plant that needs watering, birds that need feeding or jigsaw puzzles that need those final pieces.

What is important is that both you and the administrators of her long-term facility begin to appreciate your mom’s need for relevance and do what you can to help her find within herself her talent and strength to take her outside of her obsessions with the isolation of her personal being.

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact:

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