Embracing Brené Brown Vulnerability in Aging
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.”1 Could we have gotten it wrong all these years? That is, that feeling of being emotionally exposed or uncertain, as Brené Brown, Ph.D., research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and author of the #1 New York Times bestselling books, The Gift of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness and Dare to Lead, would define vulnerability. And, as if one shock was not enough, Brown would argue also that vulnerability is the birth place of joy, belonging, love, and creativity when we embrace it in life as an opportunity to practice courage, compassion and connection.
Brené Brown’s vulnerability does not refer to the diminished capacity of an individual or group to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural or man-made hazard. Neither does she consider it weakness. Rather, she refers to vulnerability as the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Could aging, then, fit into Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability? What would Brené Brown’s vulnerability in aging look like?
Standing up to ageism
To embrace vulnerability in aging is to embrace aging through the practice of courage, compassion and connection. It is having the courage to allow ourselves to be seen and thus known.
Compassion is first being kind to oneself, then to others, because we cannot practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.
Connection is the result of authenticity—allowing ourselves to be known. It’s being willing to let go of who we thought we should be in order to be who we are.
Unfortunately, most of the conversation surrounding aging is about delaying, avoiding and not embracing or connecting. We marginalize the elderly, knowingly or unknowingly discriminating against our future selves. So it is exceptional to hear someone proclaim, “I love working with the geriatric population. They’re delightful; they’re outspoken; they have amazing history, and they have real needs that we can assist with in a very meaningful way.” That’s Judy Siderer, Senior Care Manager and Geriatric Care Manager at Intervention Associates.
Judy Siderer has been practicing professional care management at Intervention Associates for 28 years. She works with that segment of our population that is one of the most vulnerable—the elderly.
Vulnerability in aging
Embracing vulnerability in aging is difficult for many different reasons. But one obvious reason is change.
Change involves loss. As our bodies change, this loss could be physical—less muscle tone, resulting in imbalance or cognitive—difficulty remembering, concentrating or making decisions. Many seniors may want to hide these changes, especially from family members. Some fear losing their autonomy or having to leave their home. For others, it may be pride. As a geriatric care manager, Siderer confirms that she has seen this behavior a lot of times:
And it’s interesting, because people can keep up a façade. You do see this a lot of the time that people can present themselves as still functioning very, very well. I think that’s a matter of pride for a lot of seniors and they don’t want people to know they’re having trouble. They don’t want their family, their kids to know that they’re having problems, so they’ll say, “Everything is fine, fine.” They’ll be speaking on the phone and you don’t pick up the cues that might tell you that there are some problems here. But when families come in and they spend time with the person, that’s when they really notice that mom and dad might be slipping in certain areas.
Siderer calls this pretense a façade. According to Brené Brown vulnerability theory, it is called the mask of shame. It’s natural to fear these changes and it’s natural to want to hide them, because we fear losing who we think we should be. However, if we remove the mask of shame, we allow ourselves to be known and to incorporate our vulnerabilities. If we are going to fully engage in life, then we also have to embrace fully our vulnerabilities that come with aging.
Aging looks different for each person, but it is still about being proactive and preventive to achieve the best outcome, Siderer insists. Too many times we do not realize the aging parent is not adapting to changes until life happens, says Lisa Petinatti, the executive director of Intervention Associates. And this life can happen at the dinner table. Siderer explains that many times families find out during Thanksgiving and Christmas. After spending a few days with their parents, they begin to see disconcerting changes and realize that their parents do need some kind of assistance.
Most families are inexperienced in dealing with an aging parent. For many, aging is new territory. According to Siderer, most of the time, people truly don’t know where to start or where to turn or what kind of assistance their parents need.
Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection offers some guidance on the kind of assistance the elderly need. They need persons—family or care managers—who can empower them to “practice courage and reach out!…[to] own [their] story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, someone whom [they] can count on to respond with compassion.”
When Siderer enters the life of her clients, she recognizes the “amazing history” they carry within themselves. These are their stories of struggle and triumph, stories of loss and resilience.
Siderer uses words like “shepherding” and “surrogating” to describe her relationship with them. There is a sense of entering sacred ground, a reflection of Intervention Associates’ connection to Quakerism, which teaches that every human being carries a spark of the Divine.
Additionally, Siderer treats with the uttermost respect this invitation to enter the lives of her clients. “We have a lot of respect for our clients, and I think that is something that’s critical. We see a lot of disrespect of people with dementia. I think many people don’t treat them with respect. One of our hallmarks is that we treat everybody with respect and with dignity.”
Change can be scary, especially when we have not been prepared for it. But change can lead to a better place if we have the right person—one of trust—to walk with us through it. “People have to feel there’s a good relationship and trust,” says Siderer. Therefore, building a relationship is the first thing Siderer and her team at Intervention Associates do. “And it’s sincere. I want to hear how the person feels and what they feel they need,” adds Siderer. We are wired for connection. If this connection is going to be healthy, it must come from the right place—a place of authenticity and compassion.
For Siderer and her team at Intervention Associates, professional care management is not just a job. They go above and beyond to enter life fully with their clients. They draw upon their own humanity as they help clients embrace their vulnerabilities in aging. For, as Pema Chödrön, author of The Places That Scare: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, expresses, “compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
It is in vulnerability we find our power. But vulnerability is uncomfortable and risky; therefore, it requires courage. It is the only way to be authentic; therefore, it requires compassion. Vulnerability allows us to connect and to continue to live with compassion with one another within a caring community. No other organization understands this better than the care managers of Intervention Associates who recognize their job as a calling.