Sunday, July 27, 2014

The frustrated preschooler - my elderly Dad!

Bear with me, this is another blog post where I write about how my teaching of preschoolers has helped me in my interactions with my elderly parents. I hope it is not a rant, but a reflection.

Dad has had such a difficult time with this move. He doesn’t want to do it. Yet, inside, he knows “it is time” – time to move to a retirement community. He is not making it easy on himself or us.

When I step back and observe, I see a human being who is experiencing the exact opposite developmental stage from preschoolers. 

Have you seen a child playing with a toy, moving on, doing something else for awhile, coming back and not being able to find the toy again? 
This happens all the time in my classroom. Children forget where they put things, others might knock something down or move it elsewhere, teachers might inadvertently put something away without knowing it was important to the child. 
This can be oh so hard for a preschooler...Why can’t he find it? Where did it go? Who took it?

When this happens, my young students get so frustrated with each other, with their parents, with their teacher – anyone who is nearby is an easy target for their anger. We adults are thrown into the role of interpreting what is wrong and guiding them “through it.”

Many preschoolers get extremely upset when adults move things around. Change is very hard. I try very hard not to change my classroom around too much during the school year, because many children get very upset by things not being where they expected.

The preschooler is often filled with blame, impatience, frustration – 
and I believe this is because his brain hasn’t developed the perspective, habit, or “executive function skills” that will come in time ... 
how to keep track of your things, 
how to plan what you need, 
how to have a place for everything, 
how to organize oneself.

At my age, when something is missing from where I thought it was, I will wince, but I don’t get upset. I stop and think a moment, going back over in my mind all the different steps I took just before I lost the item. What did I do with it? [Sometimes, I say to myself sarcastically, “ must be the first signs of goes, the slippery slope!]

My Dad, age 85, seems to have been transported back to his preschool years – in terms of his response to losing objects. I believe my Dad is losing his executive function skills. And he is aware of it.

It is hard for a preschooler to be calm and patient when he is acquiring these skills; 
it is excruciatingly difficult in your later years to watch them slip. 

My father becomes so frustrated – 
not only about losing items, but 
to not be able to recall, 
to not be able to go back in his mind over all the different steps he took just beforehand, 
to not be able to admit to himself that he cannot do something so basic,
to not be able to do something he use to be able to do. 
A retired Navy Admiral, he was always in charge, always in control, always at the intellectual top. 
This must feel like hell.

Over these past few days, moving from his home, Dad has lost and cannot find
his meds,
his glasses,
his checkbook,
his house keys,
his favorite hat.
These are his things, his responsibility, his to know. These were his to pack, his to organize. I’m realizing this is all is too hard for him now, and, wow, that is a shock to us – his children – and it is oh, so painful for him.

Unlike with preschoolers, I rarely know where he has placed something. I’m not accustomed to “watching him,” I do not consider myself responsible for him, and neither he nor I want to take away any of his independence. I can see now that we are in a time of transition, and he will become increasingly dependent on others – like a young child.

Just like a preschooler, he insists – 
Where did YOU move it? Where did YOU put it?”

Just as with preschoolers, I am patiently guiding him to find the object – “When did you use it last? Where were you?” 

Just as with preschoolers, it is essential that I use just the right tone of voice – I cannot be patronizing, I cannot coddle him, I cannot be exasperated.  I find it best to use a little humor, a light touch, a gentle and calm voice, ideally allowing him to calm down a bit.

Just as with preschoolers, I am thrown into the role of interpreting what is wrong and guiding him “through it.”

Dad's detailed list of "what's what" for his house electric panel. 
Moving him from his home to the retirement center, he has watched all of his children packing and moving all of household, his treasures, his life story. He is physically incapable of opening boxes, of lifting heavy items, of organizing the contents. He doesn’t know where to begin.

We are working alongside him, letting him give us directions, trying so hard to let him be in charge of what goes where, but often coming up short.

Where are the books about "elderhood"?
Shouldn't we have some parallel reading to all those parenting books?
Imagine books such as
What to Expect When You are Aging,
Your 85 Year Old,
Easy to Love, Difficult to Assist.

Once again, I find myself thankful for my daily work with preschoolers, giving me insight as to what to say, what to do, how to be with my dear Dad.


  1. I think you know that my dear husband had Parkinson's with lewy body dementia. While not the same, I felt so many of these feelings during our last years together, Maureen. My experience as a teacher was very helpful, especially since our biggest goal at school is to empower, not to overtake. Yet, as you described, it was very hard to know when to diplomatically bypass so that the problem could be solved. Eventually, it was just me making the decisions, & mostly without telling. I know that the parent/child relationship is different too, & that each relationship is different. I wish you and your father well in this challenging time. Big hugs to you!

    1. It must have been so painful to experience loss of cognitive function in one's spouse. Thank you for sharing this.