Connecting well with friends and family can help people stay healthier, age well, and live longer. In 2010, Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported on a study that examined data from more than 309,000 people. It was concluded that those without satisfying social ties are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely, comparable to smoking
“Sue Ann” spent the winter of 2010 shut up in her condo. Sue Ann was in her seventies, and leaving home meant heading down two sets of stairs and a trek through ice and snow. Her kids were pressuring her to move into assisted living, but she cherished her home.
Sue Ann didn’t want to fight with her kids over her independence, so she simply didn’t ask them for help or tell them that she was not leaving her condo. Instead, she relied on friends to get her groceries, and she struggled alone to keep her home clean.
Sue Ann didn’t have a relationship of trust with her adult children. She was hiding things from them because she didn’t trust them to respect her wishes. Eventually, she reached the decision to move out in her own timing, but it was a tragedy that she didn’t involve her children earlier. Perhaps, together, they could have found a solution to keep her in her home longer, or her children could have found a way to better convince her that it was time to move.
When you’ve had great parents, you want the best for them as they age and lose the ability to make healthy decisions for themselves. Sue Ann’s children never meant to push their mother away; it was just a side effect of mishandling their concern for their mother. To help you avoid pushing your parents away, here are eight principles to guide you in taking care of elderly parents.
1. Involve your elderly parents in the decision-making process, even though you may know what’s best. No one wants to feel powerless, especially seniors who have spent sixty years making decisions for themselves and for others. To avoid imposing your solutions onto your elderly parents, engage in a discussion with them instead. Try to get them on board with your solutions by helping them to see the situation the way you see it. Also, keep an open mind to seeing solutions the way they see them and be aware that they may also have valid ideas for their welfare that are different from your own.
2. Avoid talking down to your parents. As adult children taking care of elderly parents, you feel the need to look out for them and to help them make good decisions, much as you would for your children. However, your parents are not children, and the more you attempt to make them feel that way (either intentionally or unintentionally), the more you are fostering a difficult power struggle or pushing them away from you.
3. Help your parents without letting them know you are helping them. Usually a good conversation as you are dusting or putting things away usually distracts them enough to allow you to do things around their home. If there is something they are able to do, focus your energies on doing things they either can’t do or cannot do safely. Don’t inhibit their ability to do the tasks that they are still capable of doing safely.
4. Have compassion for your elderly parents’ moods. Many times, seniors are realizing that they aren’t able to do many of the things they are used to doing—this loss of freedom and identity can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, the anger that comes with that can sometimes be directed at family caregivers. You don’t have to take abuse, but always respond out of compassion.
5. Also have compassion when your parents have their “down” days. Allow them the time to talk about why they are upset, to get it all out. Avoid brushing them aside or simply telling them to “Get over it.” As their friends have passed or moved away, your elderly parents have fewer outlets with which to vent their emotions. Be there for them. And then focus your energies on being there to support them, not trying to change their thinking.
6. If your parents are “down,” try doing things with them that you know they enjoy. Taking part in favorite activities, such as crafts, card games, paging through photo albums and scrapbooks, watching movies, going out for ice cream, and driving through the country, will be more helpful in cheering them up than trying to counsel them. Companionship can be tremendously therapeutic.
7. Try to get multiple family members involved so there isn’t just one person to blame when it’s time to have difficult conversations. No one person should have to bear the brunt of difficult conversations, such as conversations about the need to give up driving or the need to move out of a home. When there is more than one adult child involved, there is less likely to be animosity after those conversations. By hearing the same message from multiple sources, your elderly parent may also be more accepting of it.
8. Be respectful of your elderly parents’ possessions. For many people, the items they have collected over the years hold great value—either for the memories attached or for the appreciation of the items themselves. If there is a need to move and sell or downsize, your elderly parent must be involved in selecting the items they want to keep. If your parent is unreasonable in their expectations of items they can move to a downsized home, try suggesting a limit. For example, you might say, “There’s not going to be a lot of room for porcelain dolls in your new place. Instead of all sixty of your dolls, how about ten of them you like most?” Also be open to storing items in your own home or garage. Even though they may not have need of cherished items while in a nursing home, their trust that their favorite possessions are safe and available to them may bring them comfort.
Paul Blom, CEO
April 17, 2014
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