A friendly smile. Picking up the shopping. Asking someone about their day. There are various ways that we can show kindness, and often seniors need it more than most, especially those who are vulnerable. Too often we hear about cases of abuse or neglect, from those who we trust to be caring.
As families move or grow apart, it seems that more effort is required to be kind. Society often separates us into age groups, meaning that the inter-generational gap becomes more pronounced, and kindness often harder as a result. Closing this gap gives us the chance to learn from each other, to understand things from a different point of view, and to feel supported and loved.
Studies have shown that being kind to others actually increases our own personal wellbeing. Even Charles Darwin, the scientist often remembered for “survival of the fittest” (not his words), believed in the power of human kindness; he believed that our species is naturally caring and outlined in his early works that the more sympathetic communities of humanity’s predecessors were more successful at raising healthier children.
What does kindness mean?
It should be obvious that being kind benefits everyone, but unfortunately kindness is often equated with being weak, gullible or childlike, which simply isn’t true. It often takes more strength and resilience to be kind to people – to look past someone’s flaws, to hold in a mean comment, or to give someone your time when it would be “easier” to walk away.
The first step to kindness is having compassion; caring for ourselves, one another, and the world around us. When we stop focusing on “box-ticking” and start thinking about the consequences of our actions, then we start truly empathising and kindness naturally follows. Without compassion, there’s no concern for others’ wellbeing and needs.
It is important to remember that kindness means different things to different people. Understanding what is important to them will tell you how to treat them. The “Five Love Languages” is a theory about the different ways of showing someone that you love them – although the method is intended for romantic love, there are ideas that carry across, such as whether someone prefers “acts of service” (i.e. doing things for them), to quality time. Having a preference for one does not preclude another, but they can help us grasp what someone will appreciate, especially someone who is older and perhaps has difficulty articulating exactly what they need.
Encouraging and teaching kindness
The best way to teach kindness is to start young, though it’s never too late to learn! Children often imitate what they see around them, so lead by example; try to speak about older people with positivity and understanding, and get the children involved when you are doing something nice. Don’t just show them how to be kind, but also the positive effect it has when you are.
Education is important, not just about kindness, but also about the issues older people face. Teaching the truth behind the negative stereotypes of aging is important, and how perpetuating them continues a cycle that is damaging to physical, mental and emotional health. Show positive examples of older people, but do not hide the difficulties some experience, such as dementia.
Understanding the truth about getting older, and that they may face these issues themselves one day, will help them empathise. Empathy exercises can be done at any age though – we do not need to be children to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes! Sit down and have discussions about what it would feel like should you find yourselves facing the same issues.
Mindfulness has also seen a recent surge in popularity. Mindfulness helps us to regulate our thoughts and emotions, and to have more compassion for ourselves, which is the first step to having compassion for others. Often, treating others poorly is actually a reflection of our own internal feelings. Both mindfulness and kindness have started appearing more in schools, and have had a positive effect on children’s emotional skills.
Something else we can all do, and encourage others to do, is pay more attention in everyday life. Try to notice when someone needs help, and don’t be reluctant to offer, whether it’s holding the door open for someone, or helping someone carry some heavy shopping to their car. The more that we look for these opportunities, the more we will naturally notice them.
How to show kindness
There are many ways that we can show kindness to our older loved ones. The first one is simply being friendly and polite. We all get frustrated at times, especially if there are communication issues. They likely feel frustrated too! But getting angry or exasperated won’t help anyone, and will just make both of you feel bad, so try your best to stay respectful and work through things slowly and carefully.
Don’t be swayed by unintentional biases, such as assuming that because someone is older, they are incapable. Even if you don’t intend to treat the person negatively, you may still do it unknowingly as a result.
Take the time to visit or perhaps, if you live further away, stay nearby for the weekend. It is easy to feel isolated when we get older, so knowing we haven’t been forgotten is good for our mood and self-esteem. If you’re able to schedule time to stop by regularly, they will definitely appreciate it, and will look forward to your visits.
Make sure to engage with your older loved one. This may seem obvious, but we could all probably benefit from listening more. Make sure to ask them about themselves or their day, and really pay attention when they talk. They will also appreciate you sharing, so why not ask them for advice, or for their opinion on something? This is a great way of making them feel connected and involved in your life; knowing that they are important to you will reduce any feelings they may have of being a burden. You can also plan activities to do together, such as baking, visiting somewhere or reading together, especially if you are taking children with you.
If you live too far away to visit regularly, then making sure that you keep in touch in other ways is important. Set them up with social media or email if they don’t have it already, or connect to a friend or carer of theirs that does, so that you can send messages and photos of you and your loved ones. Alternatively, you can send them physical letters or photographs. And don’t forget that you can always phone them! Staying connected, however you do it, shows them that you are thinking of them, even with distance between you.
Finally, it is important to pay attention to what they need. The more you look for when and where to help, the easier it becomes to spot. Talk to your older loved one about what they need. Some will resent things being “done” for them if they are capable, whereas some will appreciate you picking up the shopping on your way over. Some people prefer thoughtful gestures or items, while others just want to spend time together. If you can clarify this, then you can treat them with the kindness they not only deserve but also desire.
Do you need support to look after your older loved ones at home? At SuperCarers, we listen to your needs and match you to vetted care workers in your local area. To find out more about how we can help, call us on 020 8629 1030 or browse our home care services on our website.
You may also be interested in our guide to caring for elderly parents.