No longer being able to drive is a huge loss

Recently a client of mine, 97 years young, has been struggling with the psychological loss of no longer being able to drive.  I am calling it a psychological loss, because in practical terms she stopped driving over 18 months ago, when she was quite ill for a period of time; ever since, she has talked about how she is going to drive again “once the weather is better”, but having now gone through all 4 seasons, it is clear that was not the issue.  It is my sense she already realized on some level that she no longer had the ability to drive safely, but wouldn’t allow herself to admit it to others.  She has had us and family to take her wherever she needs to go over that time period, but it wasn’t until her own car, which her family was using to give her rides, broke down on the road and was pronounced unrepairable, that she finally had to come to grips with the reality that she would never drive again herself. As someone whose first driving experiences were as as ambulance driver in the Second World War almost 80 years ago, being able to make her own choice to drive whenever she wanted to is a huge loss for her.  This post goes out today to all of you who are helping your mother or father go through this grieving process, and wishing you much wisdom, patience, grace and empathy.

Why seniors find it hard to ask for help

Just last week the daughter of one of my clients sent me a note, saying “We are struggling with Mum’s short-term memory loss and her general resistance to external help. Is this typical in your experience?”

I have to say it IS very common to encounter seniors who are reluctant to accept help that is offered or to ask for help. But as I reflect on my experiences over the last few months, I’ve concluded that there can be many different reasons for this. Before you know how to respond to their reluctance, it is essential that you try to find out WHICH of the many reasons it may be for your loved one. Here is a list I’ve come up with so far:

a. Lack of self worth (“I’m not worthy of help” or “I don’t want to be a burden”)

b. Fear of further loss (“If I don’t keep doing this activity that I’m not doing well anymore, I will lose the ability to do it altogether”)

c. Expense (“I can’t afford to pay for help”)

d. Trust concerns (“Will I be taken advantage of? Can I trust them in my home?”)

e. Routines are upset/accepting a different way of doing things (“I don’t like the way others will do my laundry, housekeeping, cooking etc.”)

f. Denial (“I can still do it myself!”)

g. Pride (“I’m not going to admit I can’t do it”)

h. Guilt (“I guess I’m just lazy now…I should be doing more than I’m doing”)

i. Obligation/sense of duty to serve others (“I should be looking after YOU if you are in my home”)

j. Willing to ask for help, but not the help “best suited” for the situation (eg. calling an elderly friend to take them to the hospital vs. calling the ambulance)

k. Habit—(“I’ve always done it myself before”)

l. Past baggage associated with the words “asking for help” (parents who said “pull yourself up by your own boot straps, no free ride”, etc.)

If you have a senior in your life, I’d love to hear from you about what you have observed when it comes to why help is sometimes not welcomed!

A week in the life of “Better Ways For Seniors”

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is “So what kinds of things do you do for people?” In a recent 7-day stretch, here are some of the less typical activities that made the list:

·        Brushing a dog and clipping her foot hair and toenails

·        Baking bread for Easter gifts

·        Making custom Easter cards using photos I took of the client’s farm

·        Watching the Canadian Senior Curling championship live in Stratford

·        Splitting and stacking firewood at a cottage near Bayfield

·        Keeping a senior company while they stayed in Emerg for several hours

·        Walking around the river in Stratford

·        Getting to read part of a life story being written by a client

·        Feeding llamas

·        Collecting eggs from a chicken coop

·        Helping a client colour in their adult colouring book

·        Sharing a coffee break that featured the world’s largest date squares, in New Hamburg

·        Sharing a senior’s kitchen as we jointly made her favorite hamburger soup (5 years ago her husband died, and a friend brought her this soup so she wouldn’t have to cook – – she got the recipe, and every time she makes the soup she honours his memory

·        Sharing the fears and frustrations of a client and his spouse as they come to grips with his recent increased frequency of falls, and at the same time being inspired by their resilience as they resolve to celebrate what he still CAN do, instead of getting too focused on losses

What a blessing to be able to support seniors determined to live each day to its fullest!

Does your dog give extra kisses when they feel guilty?

I had to share this lovely story from one of my senior clients this week. She has a beautiful golden retriever who is her constant companion, and who generally tries to keep my client near him as much as possible for “safekeeping”. In fact, whenever the client and I go anywhere in the car, even to doctors’ appointments, she always asks if her dog can come along, and of course, he always does!

This past weekend my client had overnight company for a couple of days, including young grandchildren. She has a large rambling farmhouse with several bedrooms upstairs, although she (and the dog and 2 cats) sleep in a bedroom on the main floor. Clearly her dog was torn in his loyalties, because my client described how each night her dog would come to her when she was getting into bed, put his face up to hers, and “kiss” her with his nose repeatedly (something he doesn’t otherwise do) and then trot upstairs to sleep with the grandchildren. She was convinced he was feeling guilty because “he knew he was supposed to be in my room!” Who says a dog’s life is easy??!!

Dance…your brain will love you for it!

Recently I posted an article about how physical exercise can give you an immediate mood boost, as well as protect your brain long term from decline. We also know that balance is a key concern for seniors; a single fall can be the event that forces a senior to have to stop living independently in their home and move into assisted living. So wouldn’t it be great if there was form of exercise that could both protect your brain AND improve balance? Well, look no further!

Dr Kathrin Rehfeld of the Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany had volunteers (average age 68) divided into 2 groups. Each group participated in weekly exercise sessions, with one group focused on endurance and flexibility training (repetitive activities such as cycling and Nordic walking, and the other group focused on dancing. While both groups showed improvement in the hippocampus area of the brain (crucial for memory, learning and balance) over the 18-month study, only dancing lead to a significant “real world” improvement in balance.

Dr Rehfeld felt that the most likely reason for the difference was that only the dancing required participants to constantly learn new movements, and to have to recall those movements and patterns under time pressure and without any help from the instructor. This would more closely mirror the daily challenge of staying balanced in a large variety of settings that people encounter as they walk about.

True confessions–I grew up in a Mennonite community where, just like in the movie “Footloose”, dancing was strongly frowned upon. But given the apparent wonderful benefits, maybe it’s not too late for me to “break loose” and learn how to “bust a move”!

Protect your brain for the rest of your life, from the inside out

In case you need any other reasons to exercise on a regular basis, I heard about more research just today, from neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki (, who has been particularly focused on studying the benefits of exercise on 2 parts of the brain:

  1. The pre-frontal cortex (key for decision-making, focus, attention, personality)

  2. The temporal lobe/hippocampus (key for forming and retaining long term memory)

As Wendy points out, it turns out that these are 2 of the areas that are most affected by degenerative brain diseases, as well as depression.

Her research identified both immediate and longer term benefits from exercising 3-4 times per week.  After a single episode of exercise, her research showed improved mood for up to 2 hours after as an immediate benefit, as well as better focus and faster reaction times.  What I found even more compelling was how repeated, regular exercise can have a long-term protective effect on these areas. How? Her research showed that over time there were measurable increases in the number of brain cells, and therefore the overall size of these 2 areas.  This in turn means that even if a degenerative disease begins, it can take much longer for losses in ability to occur, because there are reserves of brain cells that have been built up.

We are learning so much about how important proper helmets are for protecting the brain from outside forces–don’t forget to do all you can to protect this precious treasure from the inside out as well!

Building trust with seniors happens in unexpected ways!

If you are someone who provides services to seniors in their homes, you will know how vital it is to develop a trust relationship with them, in order for them to feel good about having a “stranger” in their home. There are lots of ways to do that-arriving when you say you will, calling ahead if you can’t arrive when you said you were going to, providing the services they need and want in the way they want them done, treating them with dignity and respect at all time…What I have come to discover in recent weeks is how critical relating to their pets is in building trust.
I have a client who shared with me how frustrated she is that certain agencies insist she shut her lovely docile Golden Retriever (before they have even met the dog) in a room before they will agree to enter her house. My client is fiercely independent, and has advised these agencies that if that is how they feel, they needn’t bother coming! What was even more surprising to me was the impact it had for 2 of my clients when I volunteered to do the post-winter “doggie-doo” pickup before they even asked. One of the clients brought it up no less than 5 times the day I did it, and could not thank me enough.
As I reflected on why that would have been such a powerful trust-builder, I think it was in part because such an act of service says to the client “I am willing to do what most others won’t, if it is important to you.”
For seniors who live alone and for whom their furry friends are their constant companions, it means the world to them that you would do whatever it takes to support those relationships.

Take your brain for a walk!

Jan. 31/18

There is a lot of research out there that reminds us of the benefits to our bodies of taking walks on a regular basis.  But what you might not be aware of is that there is growing evidence that walking is also a great way to keep our minds healthy and active as well!  I was recently listening to a TED talk ( by Marilyn Oppezzo, a Behavioural and Learning scientist who is studying how walking affects our creativity.  She recently conducted a study in which participants were asked to generate as many new and creative uses for common objects (eg. a house key) in a certain period of time.  Each group in the study did the exercise twice.  Group 1 did it both times while sitting.  Group 2 was seated the first time, and walking on a treadmill the second time.  Group 3 was on a treadmill the first time, and sitting the second time.

So what did they find?  When participants were on the treadmill, they came up with, on average, twice as many new ideas about the object as those who were seated.  In group 3 (treadmill, then sitting), even when they sat for the second time through, they still did better than group 1 which sat both times (although not as good as they had on the treadmill), as if there was some temporary ongoing benefit from having recently walked.

When I was thinking about this in the context of seniors and aging, it may help to explain why sometimes it seems as people become less physically active, they may at the same time start to decline cognitively as well.  So in case you needed any more reasons to get up and walk than just your physical well being, know that your brain will thank you as well!

Every day is Independence Day!

Jan. 20/18

Our neighbours to the south refer to their July 4  as Independence Day.  “Independence” is often defined as “free from outside control, not depending on another’s authority…”, and in the context of their historical dream to be a nation not governed by England, that definition seems very fitting.  What I have discovered in providing care to seniors in their homes is that EVERY DAY is Independence Day!

For those of us with no physical or memory challenges, we don’t realize that every hour of our days is full of decision points.  With little or no conscious thought we simply make the choice that we want, because we value our ability to make choices without being told by someone else what we are to do or how we are to do it.  For seniors, the issue of independence comes up much more consciously, numerous times each day, in so many aspects of their lives.  Each time they DON’T get to make their own choice, they feel a bit more shackled by the aging process, and feel they have lost another piece of what makes them unique and worthy.  It is very tempting to quickly intervene and “do it for them”, but I suspect that is largely our own distress as caregivers that feels the need to do so, without first being sure that is what the senior most wants.  Capable seniors are generally very willing to accept the consequences of their acting independently; allowing them to do so is one of the greatest gifts we can give them each day.

Alexa–a new “companion” for seniors?

Jan. 18/17

I was listening today to CBC radio’s “Spark” program, and one of the featured stories was looking at the rapidly expanding use of AI personal assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa (Echo) among the blind.  I thought this was a great topic to kickoff the coming week’s series of posts which will be about the second of our core values at Better Ways For Seniors–independence.  In the program today, blind users were directly comparing their personal assistants to their own seeing eye dogs in terms of how they were revolutionizing their ability to live independently.

I discovered a great website today ( which has as one of its mandates to provide “insights, tools & technology tips that help postpone the time that growing older gets in the way of living life to the full.”  They report that the most common ways in which seniors are using personal assistants are

  1. Listening to the music and radio
  2. Turning out the lights/adjusting the thermostat
  3. Checking the weather
  4. Checking the news

While some seniors might just choose to access the information directly on a computer, those with visual problems or difficulty typing may find that this kind of a device makes that process a whole lot easier.  I’d love to hear from you if you know a senior that is using a personal assistant, what they are using it for, whether they recommend any particular one for ease of use etc.!