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Helping Our Aging Parents Regain Their Balance in Times of Transition

Posted Sep 07 2008 8:46pm

Our aging parents are negotiating a dense web of personal transitions in the last phase of life. As Nancy Gordon points out in her article, Spiritual Care in Times of Transitions, it is helpful for family members and senior services professionals to view these turbulent passages using William Bridges’ three-phase transition model: letting go, traversing the in-between zone, and integrating the change. ( The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments ) . As Bridges points out, people in transition generally move through these phases in fits and starts, across varying periods of time, rather than progressing smoothly from one phase to the next. In addition, our aging parents experience multiple transitions at the same time making managing any one of them even more difficult.

Underlying this dense web of personal transitions is loss. While loss is traumatic at any age, it becomes especially painful and overwhelming in old age. As our aging parents struggle to maintain some semblance of control in world where all control is being lost, new losses destabilize and demoralize their outlook. What can be done to help our aging parents regain their emotional and spiritual balance after having experienced a difficult transition such as a setback in their health, the loss of a spouse, or moving into new living accommodations?

1. Make the reestablishment of their control system your number one priority. Our aging parents are dependent on family members, friends, and senior services professionals to be their “control facilitators” amid the upheaval of these difficult transitions. Control facilitators are advocates that protect and enforce our aging parent’s choices in the face of losses.

Control facilitators help aging parents “reframe” their thinking about both the meaning and the opportunity that is part of a loss. As important, they provide the energy, organization, and creativity to reestablish control systems that preserve a new form of independence and dignity.

Reestablished control systems are essential for aging parents to successfully navigate a major loss without giving up hope. While it may take a wheelchair to get mom around following a hip fracture, it doesn’t mean she has to stop going to places she loves. With the right planning, transportation and support system, diminished ambulation does not have to equate with diminish options.

2. Make the offering of tangible choices your number two priority. Our aging parents need to experience first hand that their reestablished control system is operational and effective. They may be initially overwhelmed by their new circumstances and be understandably skeptical that things will get better. Taking the time to stop and provide concrete choices, even ones that may seem unnecessary, can have a reassuring and positive affect. They offer our aging parents the comfort of being in charge as well as a reason for hope as they struggle to come to terms with major changes in their lives.

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