Our Relationship to Change: Coping with Change in Aging Loved Ones and Ourselves

The only constant is change. We’ve heard it many times before; however according to the research of psychologist, Dan Gilbert, we are terrible at estimating how much change we will experience. “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” he said. We have all experienced the phenomena of the rate of change slowing over a human life span. Our children seem to change by the minute while our middle age friends seem to change very little. In several studies, individuals vastly underestimate how much change they will experience over the next 10 years. In fact, at every age people underestimate how much even their personality and basic preferences will change in the next decade. In other words, we overestimate the stability of these things in our lives. Part of the cause of this phenomenon, according to Dan Gilbert is, “the ease of remembering versus the difficulty of imagining. It’s easy to remember who we were 10 years ago, but we find it hard to imagine who we’re going to be and then mistakenly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen.”

We can’t imagine our parents aging. We can’t imagine ourselves aging! We can’t imagine the need for assistance or long-term care in the future. We can’t imagine a spouse or ourselves being diagnosed with a debilitating disease. We can’t imagine it and we mistakenly operate and plan as though it is not likely to happen. By overestimating the stability of our circumstances and not talking about these possibilities, we can do ourselves and our families a great disservice. As Gilbert points out, our relationship to time and to possibility greatly impacts our relationship to change. 

The world of constant change can be very scary if we see ourselves as static points with newness whirling around us. Good news! While the world and circumstances around us are changing, we can trust that we are changing too, that our abilities are capable of growth, that we can be resilient and adapt to new and difficult situations. If we see our lives more like a river, the new metaphor can impact the way we anticipate and respond to change. Rivers are constantly changing their seemingly stable flow to the ocean. There are sections of wild rapids and stretches of calm water. Rocks are being rubbed smooth, one day hidden in the deep, the next exposed in the shallows. One of our biggest fears about change is a false perception that whatever situation is happening at the moment is going to continue forever. We can project out the difficult situation further into the future than anyone can see. The image of a river reminds us that we can take a big picture view and locate ourselves in the journey we’re on. We have not always been riding the intense white water rapids, and we will not always ride intense white water rapids. We have not always been a caregiver and we will not always be a caregiver.

When we trust that our lives are filled with more than one experience change can be a positive agent. Not only does it bring new challenges, but new beginnings, new opportunities, new insights. It may take a medical event like a fall or injury to help us see the subtle changes in an aging loved one. It may take a diagnosis with dementia to notice how much a parent’s behaviors has changed this last year. The good news is that when those moments of change occur, you don’t have to ride the rapids alone. At Sound Options our team of Geriatric Care Managers are able to act as guides and help you adapt and address changes in aging loved ones and make good decisions that are right for your family and support quality of life for everyone on the journey. As you begin a new year filled with relationships, careers, and commitments, remember that, in the words of Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin’”, but we are works in progress changed by time as well and we don’t make the journey alone.

Published on January 2, 2015.