top of page

Successful Aging: Help! My 88-year-old aunt won’t accept our assistance over the holidays

Q. My 88-year-old aunt has hosted holiday dinners for many years. This year, she once again decided to have the family Thanksgiving dinner at her home and as usual was reluctant to accept help. As the date drew closer, we realized she had done nothing to prepare for the dinner and made excuses. Help us understand why she just can’t say, I’m getting older and can’t do as much as I used to? Thank you. S.B.

Dear S.B.

Admitting to have less energy, strength and even stability may be an admission of little self-worth. As a society, we often value energy, vitality and speed over caution, a slower pace and even wisdom. Your aunt’s reluctance to offer reasons for her lack of action is understandable.

Perhaps if we talked openly to one another on how to cope and embrace the changes that are part of normal aging, acceptance would be easier. Here’s a hypothetical conversation to have with your aunt. OK, this sounds like an upcoming lecture.

So, Aunt Sally, let’s talk. I want to share with you some information about what we call normal or usual aging:

Feeling less strong: We know that from birth to about age 30, our muscles grow larger and stronger. Sometime in the 30s, we start to lose muscle mass and some function because of aging, called sarcopenia. Those who are physically inactive can lose as much as three to five percent of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. By age 70, we’ve lost about 30 percent of the muscle mass we had at age 20. This translates into decreased strength and an increase in fatigue when trying to do the same amount of activity from 10 or 15 years ago. Here’s the good news: We can compensate for the loss through exercise; one example is resistance training which increases muscle strength. That does not mean that at the age of 85, we will have the strength of a 25-year old; however, we will be stronger and likely will be able to do more.

Feeling tired: One cause is insufficient sleep. With age, our circadian cycles change. These are biological functions that occur in a 24-hour period cycle. The changes make us fall asleep early and get up early. Although not well understood, older people spend less time in deep sleep, the most important type to restore energy. Without deep sleep, we wake up more often during the middle of the night, find it takes longer to fall back asleep and consequently feel less rested the next day. Naps and exercise may help; some recommend melatonin.

Having less energy: According to a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report, the word “energy” can apply to strength in meeting a physical challenge or endurance to continue it for a period of time. Energy is also about the mind. If you are mentally energetic you can readily absorb information by reading, listening and observing. Lack of energy, often referred to as fatigue, includes feeling weary, bleak, lacking concentration and motivation. Then there is plain overwork. Fatigue is normal when working or playing hard without proper rest. Having too little to do can lead to feelings of fatigue as does consuming too much alcohol as well as side effects of medication.

A vanguard movement called Conscious Aging advocates we accept aging as a natural part of the life cycle rather than deny it. Stephan Rechtchaffen a holistic physician who directs the Omega Institute for the holistic studies, asserts in a Psychology Today article, that ‘if we pretend that old age can be turned into a kind of endless middle age, we give young people a false road map to the future, one that does not show them how to plan for their whole life, gain insight into themselves or to develop spiritually.’”

Perhaps our challenge is to experience mind-shifting moments to accept and embrace what we can do, what we have gained through experience and the wisdom to pass this on to our children and grandchildren, serving as a valued role model. The Spanish author and poet Francisco de Quevedo wrote, ‘We all wish to reach a ripe old age, but none of us are prepared to admit that we are already there.’

Aunt Sally, know that you are not alone in having to curtail some of the family traditions you love. For next year’s dinner, let us do all of the cooking and set up in your home unless you want to come to my home instead. Just remember, as Mr. Rogers says, ‘We love you – just the way you are.’

Thank you S.B. for your important and timely question.

bottom of page