How to Keep the Hard Stuff from Playing Red Rover with Your Heart

My friend just told me she had to trick her daughter into working with old people.  I have doubts that the daughter will ever read this so I’ll just tell you that she’s hoping to apply to med school to eventually work with kids.  Personally it’s hard to relate — I can’t handle seeing kids or animals in pain.  My personal hell would include Old Yeller, the Fox & the Hound, and Bridge to Terabithia playing on repeat.  But the daughter wanted a job with kids…until her mom suggested she have coffee with a friend in global public health….who also owns a home care agency.  The friend recruited the daughter, and I’d say that she became a “caregiver” but it’s unclear from her new love of the work if she’s giving or receiving.  Still, why the avoidance of working with people as they age?

Before and through COVID, I led a support group for people who survived polio.  Of course it’s not hard to make the connection that this group had already lived through one pandemic and COVID served as the second.  As our meetings moved to Zoom, several of our oldest-old members were able to rejoin us again.  Once, we even had a century of generations with attendees from the Greatest Generation, Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, a GenXer and a Millennial.

While it’s a jovial group, the reason for it is that polio often affects you later in life.  Polio, for many, leaves a lifelong impact.  Participants talk about what it was like to be a child in an iron lung, how the nurses used the Sister Kenny method of wrapping them tightly in hot, damp wool blankets to calm muscle spasms.  To complicate the matter more, polio hit at a time in the US (the 1940s and 50s) when people were not encouraged to talk about disabilities.  The Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t enacted until 1990.  We encouraged many children who survived polio to do whatever it took to “be normal”. 

On occasion, we have a participant who had polio as an infant, recovered and whose parents never told him or her that they had it.  They only find out as they get older and maybe if a medical provider helps them figure out why they have a muscle that just can’t get stronger.  Several people have experienced an older siblings recalling, “yes, you were really sick when you were little”….couldn’t hold their head up, had to relearn to walk, survived multiple surgeries…but as soon as they healed, no one talked about it.  Which leads me to Reason #2 why polio is hard.  

It turns out that polio does this weird thing in your body where the muscles affected by polio recuperate and many people can live an “un-disabled” life through adulthood.  I know people who had polio and ran marathons, stood all day teaching high school music, worked for the federal government and even served as president (FDR).  Until they couldn’t.  Because as you get older, the recuperation in those muscles affected by polio doesn’t stick.  Eventually, when you fatigue your polio muscles, they degenerate.  Normal exercise now causes permanent damage.  Polio muscles simply can’t recuperate when they get over-tired.  The medical term for this is Post Polio Syndrome (PPS).  It’s a double-whammy: not only did we keep the effects of living with polio kept hush-hush but we also didn’t know there’d be unexpected problems later in life.  All the more reason to have a group where we can talk about this.

One polio survivor put it this way: “Jill, aging is the shits.”  It’s a sentiment I’ve heard a lot, and probably the reason that my friend’s daughter didn’t know she wanted to work with older people.  In the words of one mentor, this aging stuff will bring you to your knees — and that’s without COVID or polio.

I read a lot about resilience during COVID.  When someone tells me they feel “stuck”, especially with the anxiety which reverberates around us like an electric toothbrush these days, I tend to ask, “Who have you seen do this aging thing well?”  Same thing with a new disability.  Sometimes people can’t think of anyone; others pick a loved one who stayed particularly engaged way into their later years, adapting to changes in their minds and bodies.  

When it comes to resilience, we’re talking about fostering the good stuff on a daily basis.  How does your gratitude-o-meter look these days?  Need a little dusting off?  What about checking in on the level of your hope tank?  I bring this up because after my friend told me about tricking her daughter, she shared that the ageism made her sad.  

Ageism is prejudice against your future self, we often say.  Same with disability.  We will all likely see the day when we need an assistive device or must accept help with personal care from someone else.  I’m writing to you wearing my first pair of progressive glasses!

“And the sooner you can get over ageism and see that this is a person,” my friend commented.  “The sooner you can let go of being prejudiced toward yourself and be kinder.”  I had never thought about this before but it’s a big part of resilience: self-compassion.  

It’s not uncommon to feel stuck in our heads or self-pitying.  It’s just that some of us add insult to injury by then feeling bad about feeling this way.  It’s like our inner critic and inner worrier are playing Red Rover with our hearts.  The critic says, “Sweetie, nobody wants to play with you when you’re crying” and the other worries we’ll never get out of this headspace.  A lot of times, it would be comforting to at least have someone know we’re hurting.   

The one thing that I have seen work through these situations is to learn to be a better friend, not to others but to ourselves, especially with our inner voice.  It’s easy to not hear what we’re saying to ourselves.  And I’ll admit that those of us who are helpers will often comfort to others before listening to our own hearts — isn’t that weird? 

Kristen Neff is a researcher and expert on self-compassion — look her up on YouTube or selfcompassion.org.  She’s rad.  Kristen makes the observation that compassion for others requires us to notice they’re suffering.  And to have compassion for ourselves, it’s the same thing.  We need to recognize that we’re suffering right now.  Compassion is recognizing how hard a situation is and then offering kindness, warmth and caring, in the form of what we say and how we treat ourselves.  Add it like a bookend to your day — try a cup of tea with a self-compassion meditation and see how you feel.  You can actually get used to the sound of a compassionate voice inside of your own head.  

When people ask me why I like working with people who are older, I think a big reason is that many people have gone through adversity and learned to be nice to themselves.  They are more able to reflect on major themes in their lives and see how a critical or worrying “inside voice” might have protected them at one time but is no longer useful.  Maybe there is more room for compassionately responding to our naggy parts.

If you want to see how this self-compassion thing works, the next time you’re in a hard place, recognize what you’re feeling (“this is so hard!) and the fact that we all suffer (just saying, “everybody suffers” can help).  Then ask yourself: “If I were my best friend, what would I want me to do?”  And do it.  It’ll get you started, and this is a raw ingredient for resiliency.  I’ll never forget talking about this with my sister who later texted me, “My best friend would want me to make Rice Krispy treats and eat them!”  Good luck! 

Picture of Jill Eelkema

Jill Eelkema

Having the right guidance as you or a loved one journey through life’s transitions makes a world of difference. Jill’s helped countless individuals and families work through major life changes with confidence and dignity. Her expertise in psychotherapy, care management, and facilitating tough conversations with family members will give you confidence and peace of mind no matter how tough life gets.

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