Molly Rowe owns FirstLight Home Care of Salem, MA with her husband, Steve, and lives in Swampscott with their two sons.
Of all the things that baffled us about our dad’s (my dad-in-law’s) behavior in the last few years of his life, there’s one thing that stands out most of all. It wasn’t that he started freezing all his food (including his butter) or sleeping in a chair every night. It was that he stopped doing crossword puzzles.
Crossword puzzles were a mainstay in his house after his wife died of cancer in 1991. He had a special clipboard for the weekly puzzle, a favorite pencil, and seemed to savor the process of solving them. On holidays, we’d pass the clipboard around in a group effort to finish the puzzle (I’m embarrassed to admit it sometimes took all five of us).
Looking back, this simple change could have had major implications but we didn’t think about it at the time. It may have been that he was having memory trouble or problems coming up with the words. It may have been his eyes were bothering him or his hand was shaking too much to write. Or it may just have been he was depressed—probably the most likely reason—after he suffered a heart attack and turned 80.
Such a simple thing—those crossword puzzles—not exactly saving the world, but they may have been his reason for getting out of bed (or out of his chair) each day. The end of those puzzles marked a turn in his aging. And an end to what some call a “purpose-filled life.”
When you’re caring for someone, giving his life “purpose” often takes a backseat to providing care. You’re just trying to get him (and you) through the basic parts of daily living. But, while maintaining that purpose gets harder and harder, especially if your loved one lives alone, having a purpose makes them live longer, healthier lives.
So, what can you do to ensure your parent or other aging loved one has that purpose? If he is well enough to leave the home, he could be well enough to volunteer. Volunteering doesn’t have to be standing on her feet for six hours, serving soup. It could be reading books to kids at the YMCA preschool, manning the welcome gate at Winter Island, or greeting people at church.
There are a ton of fun resources at the Swampscott Senior Center where seniors can play poker, for example, and connect with friends. (And if your mom or dad doesn’t drive, there are many local people, including FirstLight, who will help get them ready, drive them there, and stay until they’re done.)
If your parent or loved one isn’t well enough to venture out, there are other things you can do at home.
Our nurse tells the story of her mother-in-law who suffered from dementia and often got agitated when she came to visit. They discovered that keeping a basket of unfolded laundry (socks, pillow cases, towels, etc.) on hand relaxed her. Folding laundry became her purpose.
Maybe gardening is a passion, but your mom is no longer well enough to spend hours kneeling in the backyard. You could recreate a “garden” in standing bins or pots. Or if your dad loved bowling or golf, you might check out the Wii versions of these games. Obviously the “purpose” depends on your loved one’s health, physical abilities, and interests, but there are a million ideas if you’re creative.
And, if like us, you start noticing a big change in your parent—an absence of something simple but consistent like crossword puzzles—it’s worth exploring. I never asked my father-in-law why he stopped his crosswords, but now I wonder what it would have revealed if I did.
This article was originally posted in the Swampscott Reporter. FirstLight Home Care of Salem, MA provides non-medical in-home care to adults in Swampscott, Marblehead, Lynn, Salem, Peabody, Danvers, Beverly, and Lynnfield. For more information on the senior care resources in your area and tips for initiating those tough conversations, please visit FirstLight’s website at www.firstlighthomecare.com or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.