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When Do Loved Ones Need a Hand?

Sometimes it's better not to be so quick to help

Senior man opening hotel room door

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Trusting older loved ones' memory of details, such as hotel room location, is important for their self-sufficiency.

"I think I know where it is," he said.

I was with my fiancé's 92-year-old grandfather. We were at a family reunion in Kentucky, 300 miles from the Illinois farm he's called home his whole life. Between events, I volunteered to take Grandpa back to his hotel. He was on the fourth floor, the family told me, but I'd need to ask the front desk for his room number because he'd been experiencing some memory loss the past few years.

But when we got to the hotel, Grandpa bypassed the desk and walked straight to the elevator.

"Does he really know where he's going?" I thought. "Should I stop and ask anyway to avoid going up to the fourth floor only to turn around again?"

I decided to follow Grandpa — and I'm glad I did. Even though he wasn't sure of the room number ("It's 470 something …"), he knew just where it was. (It was 417.)

We often overcompensate for older loved ones and, in doing so, underestimate their abilities, even when we think our hearts are in the right place. It's easier for me to do the dishes myself, we might tell ourselves, or it's faster if I just make their bed. In my case, I didn't want him to walk any farther than necessary.

But by supporting too much, we can do a disservice to our family and friends. Demands — both physical (stairs, for example) and psychological (expectations of family members) — help people thrive as they age. This is the premise behind what gerontologist M. Powell Lawton called "environmental press." Rather than accommodate a person's every need, the goal should be to find a balance between demanding and easily doable situations that fit the individual and his or her unique abilities.


Of course, abilities are constantly changing, which complicates things. How do you know when to hang back, when to push or when to provide that extra help?

There's no magic answer. Every situation is different and evolving. That's why leaders in the field advocate for person centeredness, letting loved ones lead the way and make as many choices as possible. So if they seem up to a challenge, as long as it's safe, let them take it — even if your first instinct is to make things easier for them.

Grandpa was the reunion's rock star. The youngest of seven siblings and the last one living, he represented an entire generation. To the 120 people there that weekend, he was a dad, a father-in-law, an uncle, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. He didn't need me to find his room.

But even if he had — even if we'd gone back down to the lobby to speak with someone at the front desk — would it have been so inconvenient? Challenge (and failure, many times) is good. It's part of life.

Laura Hahn is a gerontologist committed to intergenerational solidarity and age-friendly communities.

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