Mary Ellen Hoeh has four children and many grandchildren, but none of them live in Oregon. When the holidays come around, she experiences the loss of loved ones and her circumstance typifies why support groups and conversations on aging are so vital in our culture.
When families are living far distances, there is no day-to-day involvement. And when the family does get together, it is clear that their children’s lives are vastly different from the past. Mothers begin to feel insignificant and adult children do not always understand their emotional needs. Too often they think that having their mother or father planted in a comfortable chair while activity swirls around them is being kind when, in fact, it can make their elders feel insignificant.
Mothers – or fathers – no longer feel involved or engaged with the family dynamic.
Hoeh has made a life for herself after retirement by becoming outreach coordinator for VIEWS (Volunteers Involved for the Emotional Wellbeing of Seniors), which offers free facilitated discussion groups on topics important to people 60 years and above.
She also volunteers as a support group facilitator. During holidays, she spends half a day on the telephone, she says.
Support in difficult times
Among the topics of Conversations on Aging is “Learning from Grief and Loss.”
“As we age, we experience losses of many types,” she says. “Grief may become a more common experience.”
In support groups, men and women can learn from others how to find their own path through the grief. Losses may be of a loved one, of physical capabilities, loss of mental abilities, a home, even a pet.
What others say often doesn’t help. (“Get a hold of yourself,” “Get involved in something,” “Buck up,” “You shouldn’t be sad,” etc.)
“Our purpose is to reduce isolation by bringing people together,” Hoeh says, noting that VIEWS has added services to Clackamas County after operating in Multnomah County for 21 years.
“It’s hard for this age group because they are used to being in charge in their families, and now all children are grown and they do things differently,” Hoeh says. “They are living differently from what they were taught, and daughters are doing what they husbands want them to do and sons what their wives prefer. In my family my children live in four different states and one of them has just moved the family to Brussels. Even children who live closer to their parents are living a life of their own or they have no time. When you do get together with your family you feel you are not important, you are not valued.”
She cites one dad who came to a support group whose son and family took him to dinner and the son picked up the check. “He said he felt worthless that his son was paying for him,” she says.
Many seniors have financial issues and are low income and cannot afford to travel to family. She knows one woman could not afford a long-distance call to a son who was ill and didn’t know how to make a collect call to the hospital.
“Isolation is detrimental to health,” Hoeh says. “This age group has a hard time making new friends their own age. That’s why our support groups and conversations on aging are important and we have one of them that is about tips for holiday wellness. Because of confidentiality, our groups open up to strangers, and the situation can become intimate. We have people crying in these sessions.”
Most holidays incorporate rituals and memories, and the loneliness and emptiness can be magnified because the older population can feel, as Hoeh relates, “I am not part of something. I used to be the one creating these rituals and memories. Even though I was stressed doing it I felt satisfied and fulfilled because I was creating an environment and an experience. If you are lucky, you will get an invitation, but usually you are left sitting on the couch being old grandmother. We do not honor the elderly in our culture.”
When mothers offer to help with preparation or cleanup or other chores, often their adult children will say, “Mom, let me take care of this,” and parents feel they have no purpose.
She advises adult children to give their mothers a role to play, a job to do to make them feel valued. If she is not needed, encourage grandchildren to sit with her and listen to her stories. “How many of us wish we knew more about our parents,” Hoeh says. “I do.”
She believes others want to know our stories. “I think they do care, but there has to be some encouragement for this.”
She recommends that residential retirement communities get involved with young children and teenagers so there is interaction and recognition of the elderly. She also advises seniors to join senior centers where there are numerous activities going on.
“You have to take the initiative, but too many feel they don’t look good or they have a walker and cannot get there or they don’t drive. If they call the senior centers, it is possible someone could offer them a ride. But you have to seek help.”
Hoeh also says being involved in church groups or finding a hobby and joining a group that focuses on it are ways to “create a community” if you are not part of one.
She would also like to see more programs in the schools that involve intergenerational communication. “We need to manufacture these opportunities,” Hoeh says.
“If you can’t be with the ones you love, love the ones you’re with.”
Volunteering for VIEWS is “a great way to build a community,” she says. “We’re all experiencing the same things, and we are a tight network.”
Facilitators are not there to fix what has happened but to be in the moment, offer compassionate listening, real understanding, no judgment and no shoulds.
As their newsletter says, “Don’t face aging alone. It’s so much easier when you share the journey with your peers.”
Hoeh teaches mid-life transitions at Portland Community College, especially aimed at those getting ready for retirement or laid off in their 50s and needing new opportunities. She also conducts workshops on this subject through libraries.
To learn the schedule and topics of VIEWS Conversations on Aging, visit viewsoregon.org or call 503-261-6181.
Among past topics are Bridging Life Transitions, Engaging with Adult Children, Heart to Heart (discussion about end-of-life preparation) Holiday Wellness, Learning from Grief and Loss, Oregon’s Advance Directive, Staying Engaged in Life, Talking with Your Doctor, and The Elder Journey.
Meetings are held at Calaroga Terrace, Emilie House, Friendly House, Gladstone Senior Center, Juanita Pohl Center, Lake Oswego Adult Community Center, Milwaukie Center, Pioneer Community Center, Rose Center, Silvercrest Residence and Westmoreland’s Union Manor and also in Oregon City and Tualatin and Tigard.