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Caregiver’s Context: The Big Picture

Sometimes the big picture helps makes sense of what we are experiencing. This is certainly true for caregivers of aging parents who feel overwhelmed and exhausted from the complexity and uncertainty of their work. The Caregiver’s Context Mind Map offers them an integrated overview of the unavoidable challenges that come with the role. It also illustrates that the responsibilities exceed the capacity of any one person.

Adult children can use the Caregiver’s Context Mind Map to answer the following questions about the most challenging aspects of their role:

1. Which of the contextual factors is currently the most challenging?
2. Why is this situation so challenging?
3. Why does it need to change?
2. What needs to happen to improve this situation?
3. What decisions and resources does the change require?
4. Who can help me find them?
5. Where do I start?
5. What’s possible in the next 30 days?

Framing a difficult aspect of the caregiving role in terms of why it’s so challenging and why it needs to change helps mobilize the brain’s creativity and resilience to find answers both from within and outside resources. It also helps adult children reset expectations as to what is possible given the scope and depth of the contextual challenges.

Crossing the Eighty-Something Frontier

We all hope our aging parents will be robust and independent as they navigate their eighties. Some will, but the majority, nine out of ten, will not. They will become frail or suffer from dementia. They will wind up not being able to take care of themselves. We wish it were different, but the statistics on “older bodies” are blunt: rapid deceleration from eighty on is the norm.

How is this information useful?

1. It helps adult children and their aging parent understand the tactical choices they will face in the “eighties zone.” All eighty-something adults are going to need help at some point. What does that help look like? Can our aging parents give up some privacy to stay put? Are they willing to change living spaces if it gives them a better level of control over their lives?

2. It helps adult children and their aging parents understand the financial choices they will face in the “eighties zone.” All forms of additional help is going to cost money. Who will pay for it? Will it come from savings, home equity, or long-term care insurance? What is the best way to manage these costs?

3. It helps adult children and their aging parents understand the emotional choices they will face in the “eighties zone.” The loss of health is going to present some tough decisions. What situations do our aging parents want to avoid? What limits do they want place on medical intervention? When is it time to say goodbye?

These are not just questions we ask our aging parents; they are questions we need to ask ourselves. They not only give us a glimpse of our own future, but they help us feel the ‘weight” of what our parents are facing.

Navigational Thinking and Being Older

Senior couple walking their beagle dog in autumn countryside

We see things not as they are, but as we are.

Navigational Thinking is an effective strategy for recalibrating perspective. It offers aging adults a process to create a more useful attitude about being older.

Navigational thinking mimics the strategy that pilots use during an in-flight emergency. Pilots resist the natural response to panic by focusing their attention on a set of predetermined questions that lead them to useful thinking about the best course of action to save not only their lives, but also the lives of the passengers who are counting on them.

Although Navigational Thinking acknowledges a decline in outlook is a normal response to upheaval of being older, it insists that a course correction is not only possible but is necessary to preserve quality of life.

Navigational Thinking is designed to capitalize on the unique opportunity that aging adults have to orchestrate a different outcome. To accomplish this, it offers a new thinking ritual they can use to change the internal discussion they are having about their experiences. It taps into the cognition-emotion connection in the brain and redirects the emotional intensity of being older into a more useful, positive perspective.

Navigational Thinking is comprised of three reframing questions that increase control and facilitate legacy. They can be used at any time and in any situation.

This is not a quick fix that will magically transform a negative attitude back into first half optimism. Rather, Navigational Thinking is a rebalancing tool for the distorted thinking that being older creates, a cognitive reframing system that slowly begins to restore a more sustainable and nurturing perspective.

Navigational Thinking questions can be asked in any order. All three questions begin to reverse the myopia of “problem fixation” that a negative attitude imposes on aging adults by redirecting their focus to new insights, choices, and solutions.

The questions have no right or wrong answers; they are not a test. They offer a starting point for a new internal conversation. Like all cognitive strategies, they are most effective when written down, reconsidered, annotated, and shared on a regular basis.

1. What is the big picture of being older?

The years forever fashion new dreams when old ones go. God help the one dream man…Robert Goddard

Aging brings with it losses and recovery. This is not a new experience for aging adults who are veterans of life’s give and take. Yes, being older has painful setbacks, but at the same time it mobilizes new channels of courage and resiliency in a world where time is no longer vague or intangible. It also fosters a deeper gratitude for family and friends who anchor love and support. Aging adults are free to savor both the past and an amplified present with just enough time to make a difference.

2. What are my choices in being older?

Ever tired. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better…Samuel Becket

Aging takes its toll. It is easy to become defeated by losses and setbacks. Withdrawal and isolation are common is a society that venerates youth and sees aging as pathology. Despite these emotional and cultural headwinds, being older still offers the opportunity to dance with circumstances. Aging adults are free to set the agenda and see what happens. They are equally free to change their minds, be out of character or reclaim a dream. The same is true for disengagements and amends. It is also possible to do nothing and dance with the gift of each day. Aging changes many things but choice survives it all.

3. What can I learn from being older?

The wiser mind mourns less for what age takes away than what it leaves behind…William Wordsworth

Aging leaves in its wake lessons about being older. First and foremost, aging adults come to understand that life is hard for everyone. This transformative insight paves the way for an inclusive empathy through patience and kindness.

Second, aging adults have come far enough to see that life always works out of its own volition, an insight that marks the limits of their control over life’s drama. Aging adults are called to adopt a new perseverance that is less apologetic about being older and more accepting of the opportunity life presents without fanfare or limits each day.