An older gentleman wearing binocular glasses whittling a piece of wood

The Challenge of Granting Senior Mom & Dad Dignity, Respect, and Autonomy

A Personal Essay

Six years ago, a powerful hurricane with a girl’s name threatened to hit central Florida, where my seventy-something-year-old father resided in a trailer home. As local authorities called for evacuation, my dad, unyielding, declared that he was ready to face whatever came his way, firmly placing his trust in God’s will. Despite our pleas as his four children, he had no intention of abandoning his tin can in the gateway to the Everglades.

This stance shook my sisters, leading to whispers and concerns about his safety and, yes, even judgments about his decision-making. My younger sister went as far as contemplating involving the local police, citing our father as a danger to himself, hoping they would forcefully evacuate him from his home.

Just a month ago, one of my clients, a low vision doctor, addressed the leadership of a state agency’s senior citizen division, advocating for better support for seniors with severe visual impairments. As a marketer working closely with low vision optometrists like him, I’ve witnessed firsthand the unique solutions they offer through prescription glasses. These glasses, unlike what traditional optometrists, ophthalmologists, retina specialists, and low vision rehabilitation therapists provide, possess extraordinary magnifying capabilities. They empower individuals to watch TV, engage in crafts, recognize faces, and sometimes even regain the ability to drive.

However, a recurring complaint arises when people discover these glasses: “Why didn’t my doctor tell me about them?”

So when my client questioned the state vision agency’s leadership about their failure to promote these glasses, the president provided two dismissive answers: “They can’t afford them” and “I don’t want them on the road driving.”

Personally, I have a penchant for playing Devil’s Advocate, habitually considering different perspectives, which may occasionally annoy my friends and family. Sometimes they simply want to vent about a rude waitress, and I dismiss their complaints, suggesting, “Maybe they were dealing with something… it’s hard out there. You don’t know.”

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the experiences of senior citizens. As someone naturally inclined to be a devil’s advocate, a trait known as “Justice” according to StrengthsFinder, I often try to put myself in someone else’s shoes. For instance, I reflect on the life of my nearly 80-year-old mother. She lives alone with her two cats and an oversized Pomeranian. Last year, she had a frightening fall, hitting her head on the bathtub, which led to an emergency room visit. To ensure her safety, I installed a bathtub rail, a handheld shower nozzle, and an additional handrail for the stairs leading to her basement. Since then, my siblings and I have speculated that she might have balance issues, expressing concerns about her frequent trips up and down the stairs for laundry, cleaning the cat litter boxes, or performing tasks that require bending over or scrubbing the floors on her hands and knees. Her habit of stacking all her pots and pans in the oven, which necessitates removing them every time she wants to bake, only adds to our worries. And what was she thinking when she impulsively adopted that Pomeranian last year? It seems things will only get more challenging for her from here on.

Last year, I was doing a self-improvement exercise that asked me to make a list of who I most judge and what I judge them about. My mother’s list was by far the longest. I judged how she spends her money, her Catholicism, her opinions about her family members, her choice of laundry detergent, and even how she drinks four different types of milks each day. Despite being a passionate dairy-loving Cheesehead, I still can’t get past the milks. These aging-related concerns compound the existing list of grievances my siblings and I hold against our mother.

My mother and I

So, when she recently needed neck surgery, you can only imagine the inner turmoil I experienced as I stepped up to support and care for her for a few weeks. I scrutinized every task she assigned me—buying greeting cards, Catholic-themed gifts, specialty food, vitamin supplements, stamps, you name it. And when I returned and noticed a mason jar of water on a windowsill, I immediately accused her of exceeding the doctor’s instructions. Yet, every time I scolded her, she had a reasonable explanation for her actions. She utilized her grabber or used one reachable object to manipulate another. She had an explanation for everything I questioned her about. It didn’t take long for me to realize how suspicious and nagging I had become, especially since she responded with such grace to all my accusations.

All of these experiences—those involving my parents and the seniors I serve through my marketing efforts—have heightened my awareness of our society’s deficiencies in treating capable-minded (wise!) senior citizens with dignity, respect, and autonomy. It’s certainly not the way I want to be treated in a few decades.

If someone doesn’t want to evacuate, they don’t want to evacuate (though my dad did end up evacuating safely.) Don’t belittle them and/or misuse resources to get what you want. If they can’t see or have some other handicap, give them ALL of the options to let them do the things they love and have fulfilling lives. And if they want to drink four milks, goddamn it, let them drink four milks. We don’t know their financial resources, relationship to their faith, and we certainly don’t want to dampen their ability to do the things they love and lead a vibrant life.

I am immensely grateful that both my parents are alive and possess a zest for life that seems unstoppable. Nothing holds them back.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder about the countless services and opportunities that fully capable-minded seniors might be missing out on simply because they are unfairly deemed stupid or feeble and incapable of making good decisions for themselves.

It is imperative that we acknowledge and address the issue of how senior citizens are often deprived of dignity, respect, and autonomy in our society. Through personal experiences with my parents and the seniors I work with, I have come to realize the importance of treating individuals of all ages with the respect they deserve. As we advocate for a more inclusive and compassionate society, remember that aging does not diminish a person’s worth or right to live a full life.

Lastly- Mom- I’m sorry for doubting and judging you harshly. Spending all the time together lately has made me further realize what a gift you are to the people around you. Sure, you have your idiosyncracies, but that is what makes you who you are. I promise to be the best advocate and support that I know how to be for you, and I will always be open to learning how to be a better daughter and listener as we continue to deepen our relationship. Happy Mother’s Day.

[By the way- about senior citizens driving with low vision glasses: the glasses improve their vision to comply with the state’s safe driving guidelines for vision. If you think that your state’s DMV vision requirements are too lax, take that up with them. NO ONE is knowingly putting unsafe drivers on the road.]