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Empathy and Independence: How to Truly Support Aging Loved Ones

Updated: Jun 26

"Sometimes we can offer a cure, sometimes only a salve, sometimes not even that. But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person’s life. When we forget that, the suffering we inflict can be barbaric. When we remember it, the good we do can be breathtaking."

― Atul Gawande, *Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End*

“When I die, I want my tombstone to read ‘I don’t have to take big steps anymore.’” This was a remark a gentleman with Parkinson's disease told Jen Winters, a geriatric nurse practitioner when she asked the man how his physical therapy was going. Jen told me this story and it highlighted the fine line between providing assistance and imposing help on someone who may not want it.

Those of us dedicated to training and helping others maintain mobility and independence can sometimes see ourselves as saviors, fighting against the decline that can accompany a sedentary lifestyle. However, it's critical to recognize that we are not heroes to those who do not seek our help. When our values center around taking responsibility for one's health and putting in the effort to stay independent, it can be challenging to understand why someone might choose otherwise.

 Understanding and honoring how people want to live out their days is critical. Imposing help without understanding their preferences can do more harm than good.

The best way to honor someone and make them feel seen is to ask questions and understand their goals rather than assuming that our version of 'help' is what they need.

Atul Gawande eloquently captures this approach in his book "Being Mortal": “Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”

By embracing these questions, we ensure that our interventions align with the individual's desires and values. We cannot expect others to align with our values and lifestyle choices. The best way to respect and honor them is to allow them the autonomy to live their lives as they choose.


For more insights on this topic, check out my bog article, "When Helping is Hurting" where I write about how our intentions to 'help' are not always perceived positively by those we aim to serve.

Here are three podcast episodes that share fresh perspectives and approaches to help encourage people to move more:

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