Tending our Boundaries in Advanced Aging

Growing up and growing old years are times when personal boundary setting receives more attention. The nurturing of our early years taught us one way or another about sense of self, boundary setting and the associated values.  Growing up and growing old years are also times of greater dependency when personal borders tend to be  more porous and ignored in  both casual encounters and targeted helping relationships.

As an example of nurturance, my own boundary learning was acquired in a bicultural, bilingual Swedish-American household where I was taught not only by my parents but by my 5 year younger sister. Two specific aspects of personal boundaries of it were linked to my relationship with her. She developed a sharp sense of self very early and vehemently announced in one of her first multiple word sentences, “You ain’t the boss o’ me!” At seven, she began her long journey to becoming a highly respected professional violinist and teacher. I joined her in the first decade as I learned the skills of being a piano accompanist. During music lessons we were taught that making music together required merging both egos and skills. We worked on it in hours and hours of practicing and performances. Once we grasped the idea we were able to recognize the difference in both the quality of our performance and our experience. i.e. the emotional high’s when we achieved unity and the disappointment when we hadn’t. 

Another pivotal learning experience took place at 18 when I began the clinical phase of learning to become a nurse. Here, patient care required us to regularly invade our patients’ physical borders and sometimes even the emotional ones. We were taught how to do it “professionally” and also the important ethical responsibilities.

As a nurse and later an educator, I continued to learn about professional border-related encounters. Both casual and more purposeful encounter opportunities abounded daily in relating to colleagues as well as students.

Being nudged into writing this blog has led to my seeking even more knowledge from the aged person’s needs and perspectives. My being almost housebound and living alone limits social encounters and even those may relate to  my  age related changes (ARCs). I’ve found I’m uncomfortable about revealing my progressing limitations and compensatory strategies that don’t work. But, on the other hand that approach is self-defeating. I do need help (or at least adaptations to my ARCs) and that help tends to be more efficient when it is tailored to real capacities, strategies, and requirements.  So, pride swallowed, I try to share my status when it’s called for. What I’ve found with professional care providers is that sharing ARCed capacities requires seeing the situation from their perspective.  Paid encounters are most often time limited ones where both focus and task are discipline-specific.

In a rehab center recovering from broken forearm bones (encased in a full arm splint), my treatment included physical therapy to strengthen and manage the rest of my body. The ARC data I needed to share with her was related to my ARCed stamina. Exercises and repetitions I could manage in the morning were more than I could do in the afternoon. It was viewed as failure to try so she worked on my motivation. My effort and motivation were 100% but my capacity was not. I tried to share specific ARC data in ways that didn’t sound like whining excuses or resistance, e.g. I could do isometric exercises in later hours just not mobility ones.

At 100 I’m realizing that my ARC s of decreased short term and working memory are also affected by my distractibility. (Even a rubber band for snapping on the wrist to remind me gets forgotten.)

I’ve finally become up-front about this situation and have alerted family, friends and colleagues to stop me. Some will, but people really are remarkably tolerant even with this person I don’t want to be. I also notice that while others are assessing me, I’m assessing them and then storing that information for my adaptive strategies.

It’s obvious that boundary protecting is truly complex. Still, it’s there to be dealt with, however we manage it.

9 thoughts on “Tending our Boundaries in Advanced Aging

  1. I was truly flabbergasted by this post. In a good way. I think for some reason I thought that self-protectiveness, that assessment for adaption, that view of failure would become less as we age.

    You share with such grace and openness I never stopped to consider that maybe you are sometimes uncomfortable with it. I find you so inspiring and so educational, I think I lost sight of your day to day “living with all these changes”

    This comment isn’t as eloquent as I hoped. Just know you are heard and I continue to learn so much form you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am remembering a class at your home where we all sat on the floor in a circle and learned about personal space through exercises and discussion. Now thinking about personal space as we age, I can see how often it can be invaded, especially in an assisted living or nursing home setting. To truly respect a person, we/I must ask permission to invade the person’s personal space. You give me a lot to think about, as usual. Thank you for your sharing and your wisdom.


  3. Thank you for sharing your blog abour bounderies: it is something I hadn’t really thought too much about. I do find that I don’t like admitting, first to myself, then to others that I am needing more help. I will soon have to swallow my pride and do something about it. Thanks so much. Janice


  4. Your thoughts remind me of some of the lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song: “I look at life from both sides now…” Those of us who have spent much of our lives giving (nursing, teaching, etc) tend to find it difficult to accept it when we need it. Thank you for the eloquent reminder that some boundaries aren’t permanent.


  5. My brother is struggling with personal space issues. Due to his dementia challenge living at his home was no longer possible. But we have to advocate for him as we believe that the caregivers at his assisted living facility frequently invade his privacy by entering his apt without waiting for him to answer. As we all age I think others have to recognize we still are entitled to boundaries and we need to speak out for ourselves.


  6. I can really identify with your Physical Rehab experience! I found out recently that when we are in a new situation and feeling vulnerable, it is often difficult—but so important— to establish good, productive boundaries through clear communication.

    In September I had my first experience with a surgery (total replacement of my left knee) that required time at the rehab center affiliated with the practice of my orthopedic surgeon. As a life-time devoted student AND a teacher for most of my working life, I was highly motivated—and even excited—to conscientiously perform all the necessary exercises (expecting that they would often be challenging and uncomfortable) because I couldn’t wait to get back to my very pleasurable daily walks again. During my first visit with my assigned trainer (a very skilled and personable woman about 30 years younger than I), I was careful to give her my general orthopedic status—which included a history of back problems, spinal surgery a little over a year ago, and a right knee that was already “bone-on-bone” and would probably have to be repaired next year! With that full disclosure out of the way, I was ready to work!

    Everything went great until my trainer wanted me to do an exercise that put quite a bit of strain on my lower back and right (“good”) knee. It seemed to be targeting THOSE areas unduly. I reminded her about my back and right knee, but she insisted that I would be fine because my legs were so strong and I was doing so well with all the other exercises. I didn’t want to be seen as a slacker, so I really tried!! But then I went home and had major pains in my back and “good” knee. My newly replaced knee was fine.

    I then thought of a way I could modify the exercise so that it would strengthen my “new” knee and leave the problem areas alone. I felt pretty weird about telling someone who was an expert in her field that I wanted to do something different, but I screwed up my courage and told my trainer, “Because of my other orthopedic problems, I’m going to do the exercise THIS way!” To my surprise, she was fine with that idea. I progressed well through the rest of the training, and we parted good friends. I’m going to request her when I get my right knee fixed! I learned a lot about boundaries that day!!


  7. I’ve just become acquainted with your work from Rachel Alpine’s blog. I’ve ordered your book and look forward to reading it. I’m 80 and will appreciate your take on aging. I too taught nursing and topics like boundaries. Thank you!


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