LaRae Poe of the Boardman Ward, Hermiston Oregon Stake, recalls how ward members helped her elderly mother feel valued and accepted. “When I took Mom to church, the members would hug her and make her feel so loved,” she says. “Home teachers visited regularly, and if there were extra problems, they would give her a blessing. Her visiting teaching companion took the time and extra effort to take her visiting teaching. When I was nursery leader, Mom was my assistant. Ward members who helped her feel loved made my heart warm.”
As a nurse who has worked many years in the field of gerontology, I am gratified when I hear of wards and branches like this one that embrace the elderly in their midst. Due to increasing life expectancy and other factors, the world’s elderly population is growing rapidly, and consequently we will likely see many more elderly members in our Church units. I have noted some useful principles that can aid Church members and others in reaching out to the elderly.
Sometimes we try to jump in and solve problems for seniors rather than letting them do as much as possible on their own. Encouraging independence fosters a sense of self-confidence and self-worth among the elderly.
I once gathered a group of youth and asked each of them to assist a disabled elderly person. Their task was to identify something that would make the person more independent in some way and then to create that item. The youth made items such as carryall bags that fit on walkers, lap trays for wheelchairs, and Velcro fastenings for clothing. One young person noted that a man who had a stiffened hand could not hold his own toothbrush. The youth stuck the toothbrush in a tennis ball, and the man could then easily hold the toothbrush and brush his own teeth independently.
The elderly are also better able to maintain a sense of independence and confidence if they feel they are making a contribution in some way. Where appropriate, Church callings, targeted to the skills and abilities of the particular member, can help. President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) said regarding this point: “We hope, where possible, that each can be a home teacher or visiting teacher. Even those who are somewhat confined to their beds and homes can sometimes assist in this watchcare through telephone calls, writing notes, or other special assignments.” 1
Remember That Social Skills May Be Deceiving
Once an elderly woman invited me into her home. Graciously she showed me through the apartment while entertaining me with a running commentary on how lovely this and that was. Her home sparkled; she was well groomed and gracious. I could see no obvious hint of problems or why food prepared for her sat uneaten.
She opened the refrigerator filled with prepared dishes. I pointed to stew, salad, and cheesecake and asked her what she did with those.
She smiled. “Aren’t they lovely?” she said.
I pointed to the nearby fire extinguisher. “What do you do with that?” I asked.
She smiled. “Aren’t those pictures on it lovely?” she said.
She couldn’t figure out how to uncover the food dishes and put them on the table to eat. Nor could she comprehend why a fire extinguisher hung in her home. Gracious and charming, she used social skills to cover early stages of dementia.
While we should make every effort to encourage independence among our elderly friends, we also should be watchful for signs that an elderly individual may need help. In some situations, home teachers, visiting teachers, and neighbors are among the few contacts an elderly person has and perhaps are the only ones to note concerns and needs.
Bear in mind that impaired thinking ability isn’t necessarily a normal result of aging. Many factors can contribute to this, including medication problems, illnesses, improper diet, the effects of hospitalization and surgery, and so on. A thorough medical exam may be needed. If the elderly person has medical issues that have not been addressed or a housing situation that raises concerns, family members might be a resource. If the individual does not have actively involved family members, contact your local area agency on aging. It may be helpful to offer to transport the individual to a doctor’s office or clinic.
Do Not Judge
A Church member agonized over where his mother should live. She had been staying in his home with his family, but her combative behavior became too difficult to manage. Throughout her life she had been amiable and kindhearted, so it was a shock to those who knew her when she became physically violent, throwing items and swearing.
We may not know what changes have taken place in a person physically and mentally during the aging process. Nor do we always understand why family members have made particular decisions regarding the individual’s care. Rather than judging the senior or his or her family members, it is much more helpful to provide support. A listening ear can help elderly people and their families as they sort out various options.
Many elderly Church members live with family members who care for them. Being a caregiver to an elderly person can be exhausting. Most caregivers are appreciative of individuals who can give them a short break, and the elderly person often enjoys a friendly visit.
You might consider taking the elderly individual for a walk around the neighborhood. If the individual’s eyesight is poor, you might read aloud or help write letters. Just chatting and listening to the individual’s experiences can be enjoyable for both of you. Many elderly people also appreciate visits from children who accompany their parents. Check with the caregiver and the elderly person to find out what would be helpful and appropriate.
Do not forget the elderly who have moved to assisted living centers or nursing homes, regardless of whether their records have been moved from the ward. They need friends more than ever. When an elderly person is experiencing dementia, others may wonder if their visits are of value. Yet even if the elderly do not remember names, they often remember faces. And even when a visit is forgotten, the warm feelings from that visit may linger.
President N. Eldon Tanner (1898–1982) of the First Presidency emphasized the importance of ministering to our elderly friends and family members: “We all should assume some responsibility in remembering those of our families and our neighbors who find themselves confined for any reason—either at home or in nursing establishments. They need to be visited or given transportation to places they wish to go. Just a brief visit at regular intervals would certainly help the confined person and give the visitor satisfaction and joy for the privilege of having ‘done something good in the world.’” 2
Ensure That the Individual Has Home Teachers and Visiting Teachers
If you are in a position to do so, ensure that the elderly person receives regular visits from home and visiting teachers. This includes elderly people who live with their families. You might also consult with local priesthood leaders regarding the homebound receiving the sacrament.
President Benson said concerning home teachers and visiting teachers: “We hope each of the elderly individuals and couples has sensitive and caring home teachers and visiting teachers assigned to them. Great comfort and peace can come to those who know they have someone to whom they can turn in time of emergency or need. It is important that tact, diplomacy, and sincerity be evident in assessing and addressing such needs.” 3
As a nurse, family member, and neighbor, I have found that associating with elderly people can be delightful. I appreciate the richness they add to my life. I have found that as we reach out to our elderly friends and family members, we are blessed with the peace described in the scriptures: “See that ye love one another. … And above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace” (D&C 88:123, 125).
“At some period in our mortal mission, there appears the faltering step, the wan smile, the pain of sickness—even the fading of summer, the approach of autumn, the chill of winter. … “I extol those who, with loving care and compassionate concern, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. He who notes the sparrow’s fall will not be unmindful of such service.” President Thomas S. Monson, “Compassion,” Ensign, May 2001, 19.
Let’s Talk about It
Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:
Who are the elderly people in our wards, branches, or neighborhoods, and how can we offer our assistance?
How can we help our family members appreciate the elderly and be sensitive to their needs?