Your Aging Parents' Fears
Fears of falling aren't unfounded. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, nearly one third of people over the age of 65 fall each year. Ninety percent of the 300,000 hip fractures treated annually in the U.S. occur as a result of a fall. This year alone there will be an estimated 350,000 fractures—nearly 1,000 hip fractures a day. Osteoporosis, especially among women, is a major culprit in falls. But so are hazards in the home such as poor lighting, sliding throw rugs, cluttered hallways, and slippery bathroom floors. Medications that make people dizzy or cause them to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom are also culprits.
The line “I've fallen and I can't get up” from a popular television commercial has become the brunt of many a joke. But the company using the ad was pretty smart. They knew that one of the greatest fears of the elderly is falling. Older people worry that they'll fall on ice, fall down steps, trip on broken sidewalks, or fall in the bathroom. To make this fear even worse, they fear that no one will know they've fallen at home if they live alone. It's not unusual for older folks to restrict their physical activity because of this fear. The problem is, this strategy causes them to become isolated, lonely, and out of shape—all of which will make them more frail and more likely to do the one thing they fear—fall.
Because Mom might feel frail and vulnerable, she may find herself more fearful than she ever has in the past: She sees teenagers walking toward her in the mall as a gang about to steal her purse; Dad stops answering the door because he's afraid someone will rob him.
Besides worrying about falls and threats from the outside world, your parents worry about their bodies as they watch friends get diagnosed with cancer or Alzheimer's or suffer a stroke. They live in fear that this could happen to them or their spouse. A constant dose of television doesn't help matters either: Watching daytime talk shows in which so many American families appear to be dysfunctional or listening to a constant stream of unsettling news lead many elderly viewers to think that the world has become a dangerous and unfamiliar place. Many retreat and withdraw. If they live alone and don't have a chance to interact with a healthy, functional outside world, their fears become all the more real, especially when they feel so vulnerable physically. That's why it's so important for your parents to remain active by joining friends in social events, getting out to a senior center, finding a part-time job, or volunteering. By staying engaged, they'll maintain balance in their lives.
Don't underestimate the power of fear: Older people die every year from heat waves in inner cities because they'd rather keep their windows shut from fear of having someone break in. Others fear a high electric bill and keep the air conditioning shut off.
Be aware of your parent's underlying fears, which may embarrass them and cause them to withdraw from an active lifestyle. You might be thinking Mom and Dad are just going through a phase or are no longer interested. My dad stopped going out to eat, which he loved doing, because he had a digestive problem and was so afraid of needing to get to the bathroom. It took us awhile to figure out what was going on. Once his digestive disorder was corrected with medication and diet changes, he was back on the restaurant scene enjoying himself and acting a lot less depressed.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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