I was standing at the checkout line in a busy department store. The older woman ahead of me was fumbling in her purse for her wallet, with no success. Her adult daughter, clearly along to help her shop, looked at her a moment, asked, “didn’t you bring your wallet?” I held my breath, wondering whether the next words out of her mouth would be blame, frustration, or anger. I could certainly understand if so – we had all been standing in line for several minutes, waiting to be helped. I was sure this daughter, like me, was busy with her own life. Taking time out to help her mom shop was probably not on the top of her priority list for the afternoon.
And then the daughter burst out laughing. She turned to her mom and said, “That’s all right – we sure had fun looking at clothes today. We’ll come back another day and buy them all.”
At that moment, I didn’t care that I’d been standing in line a long time. I didn’t care how many other things I still had to do that day. My heart was warmed as I thought that this daughter had given her mother an incredible gift that day – a gift of accepting mom’s forgetfulness with grace and laughter.
Today is National Elder Abuse Awareness Day. You’ll probably read many stories about abuse of vulnerable older people, because it is a real tragedy that occurs in every neighborhood across the country, every single day.
I wanted to share a different kind of story with you today – a story of a family member – maybe a family caregiver – who showed grace, patience and good humor even in a stressful, public situation.
Because it is exactly these individuals – family caregivers, in exactly these environments – stressful situations, although usually private rather than public, where abuse most frequently occurs.
Families who are maxed out with their own life demands, and now are called upon to help an aging parent, experience the kind of stress each of us would feel. Some respond with grace and humor; others with frustration, anger and blame. Those feelings may turn into behaviors that reduce the person’s sense of self-worth, may result in the person’s feeling they have a right to spend some of their family member’s money to compensate for how hard they’re working, or may even result in a physical slap, push or other hurtful behavior.
All of this is abuse.
All of this causes unspeakable pain to the vulnerable elder, who once was a proud, independent person; now dependent on others for basic life tasks.
We frequently say, “It takes a village” referring to raising children who are moral, decent human beings.
I’d like to propose that it also takes a village to prevent abuse of vulnerable adults.
It takes all of us to reach out a helping hand and reduce the stress on the caregiver.
It takes all of us to pay attention to the elders around us, and to notice when they’ve grown much quieter than usual, or seem afraid to speak their mind. To see red marks from a wrist squeezed too tightly, or the bruise from a strike made in anger or frustration. To notice financial irregularities or someone who is losing too much weight, possibly from neglect.
That day in the store I felt a warm glow, and thanked the daughter for her kindness. We ended the day with smiles on our faces as we laughed together about silly mistakes or episodes of forgetfulness we’ve all experienced. That is the way I hope my own daughters would treat me if I should be dependent on them someday for simple tasks I do today with ease. That is the way I hope I can treat my own mother, even if I feel frustrated at times by the added burden of care.
Today, thinking about ways to prevent abuse of vulnerable adults, let’s picture the world we want to see, and do everything we can to help that world be the reality of the elders in our community.