When an Elderly Parent Is Unable to Learn New Things but Still Wants to Do Them

What can you do and say when elderly, and extremely fragile parents try to do things that are simply too difficult?


Might this old Olivetti typewriter still be useful?

Many adult children who support elderly parents arrive at a point when their fragile parents function pretty well with the activities of daily living (ADLs) yet possess less and less of the cognitive energy that’s required to complete many of the more complex tasks that they used to do with ease. At one time they could use computers and cell phones, browse online, maneuver motorized scooters, or use a treadmill, but gradually they’ve lost the cognition required to remember the steps required to accomplish these activities.

What is frustrating and, yes gut-wrenching for many adult children is the juxtaposition of parents memories for the activities with their inability to do them with their conversations about trying to do these activities again. While this dilemma does not occur in every family, and certainly not with elderly parents who have extreme memory loss, I’ve observed the situation in the lives of many friends and in my own family.

One friend moved the computer out of her dad’s apartment because he could no longer use it in any way, and when he tried, he was utterly frustrated, sometimes even getting angry. Yet he wanted it back. Another acquaintance spent hours going over the cell phone steps with her mom, but all the information was forgotten by the next day. Still, her mom wanted to “use” the mobile phone.

Similar circumstances occurred in my family. One parent could not remember and apply what she had learned in physical therapy so she could not use the treadmill anymore. Another could not use the landline no matter how many times we went over what to do. Using keys to lock a door became nearly impossible for another older elder.

Unfortunately, there is no way to tiptoe around these situations and pretend that they will go away.  People who spent long lives competently learning new things and applying new information, simply cannot imagine not being able to, And so we adult kids, search for workarounds.

My friend did not move the computer back in but she tried giving her dad on an iPad, emphasizing a single task — how he could access newspapers. My other acquaintance let her mom keep the cell phone as a wireless device, but without calling features (which her mom did not use) and the phone also let her play solitaire as much as she wanted.

I, too, removed a computer from my parents’ apartment, cleaning off quite a bit of accumulated dust, because it had sat, unused for so long. I sorted out the files, took the components apart and donated everything to an organization that gets computers in shape for people who cannot afford to purchase them. By removing the machine we created a place for another comfortable chair in their small living area.


Remember when there was a carriage return lever to use to change every line?

My mom, however, continually asks about her old computer, saying she wants to write. She remembers how much she used the computer. Whatever I say seems inadequate so I, too, have searched for a workaround.

Recently I discovered an old Olivetti typewriter, and that gave me an idea. My mom was an amazing typist — more than 60 words per minute — for her entire adult life, and until 20 years ago she wrote everything on a typewriter. So I located a place online to purchase a new Olivetti ribbon, installed it, and plan to deliver it to mom with a ream of paper. Perhaps her lifelong typing skills and the simplicity of inserting paper to type will allow her to write and put words on a page. Certainly operating the typewriter involves fewer steps than using a computer.

And maybe, just maybe, this old typewriter can give her the writing opportunity that she seeks.



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