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Valerie Robins

Caring for Elderly Parents: Your Changing Relationship

elderly parents, aging parents

No one plans to care for aging parents. We don’t plan for it financially nor do we factor in the future need to become involved in their lives, especially when we plan for retirement. Instead, we focus on our own lives and prepare for our own retirement. Consequently, we are blindsided when the needs, and accompanying dilemmas, of our aging parents explode on to the scene.

The Blinders Come Off

One day, you realize you have been visiting your parents more frequently to keep an eye on them. You are doing more things around the house that are becoming difficult for them to do on their own. During holiday visits you start to notice a few things slipping that once were done long before visitors got to the door. Remembering the names of the grandchildren is more and more difficult. You notice a momentary hesitation before saying your name. Taken separately, these changes have been explained away easily with the comment, “It’s just old age creeping up. There’s nothing to worry about.” and life continued on as before.

“To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors.”
― Tia WalkerThe Inspired Caregiver: Finding Joy While Caring for Those You Love

Old age is rapidly approaching, whether you want to accept the fact that your parents are getting on in years or not. Before too long, the relationship between your aging parents and you will change will have changed. Little changes happen so gradually you had not taken notice of them. The once comfortable adult relationship you had with your parents is going to come to a screeching halt and life for everyone will change forever.

Parent Child Relationships Change

Relationships between children and parents change over time, especially as parents get older. At best, parent-child relationships are complex in later years. Bonds often strengthen even as tensions intensify as your parents become more frail and dependent. The knowledge that time with your parents is rapidly racing by makes every moment together more and more precious.

Many times feelings surface, that are unexpected, as we watch our parents age and become more dependent. These feelings, as stated by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in an article titled Relationships with Aging Parents are Important, Complicated, can include: love, respect, sadness, fear, anger, and guilt. Stress, annoyance, and frustration increase, as mentioned by Linda Bernstein in an article titled 8 Things Not to Say to Your Aging Parents, as your lives become disrupted, you listen to the endless repetitions of old stories, deal with the forgetfulness due to cognitive decline, and lives turned upside down with the responsibility of caring for your aging parents.

As your parents get older and frailer, your lives and theirs become more closely entwined. Likely you find yourself, and perhaps your family as well, spending more and more time helping your parents out with little things while maintaining separate families and lives. Unfortunately, the time comes when the needs of your aging parents become more complex and challenging than a short visit can deal with and you begin wondering how long you will be able to keep two separate households going.

Red Flags

Watching your parents slowing down and doing less and less more than likely has you wondering how to know when you might need to step in and take a more active role in their lives. Virginia Morris, in her book titled How to Care for Aging Parents, lays out just a few signs that might indicate your parents might need some help:

  • Unsteady—wobbly on the stairs, uneven gait, dizzy when standing, has fallen at least once.
  • Hygiene—skipping showers, looking unkempt, forgetting to shave.
  • Weight changes—possible sign of illness or depression, difficulty shopping or cooking.
  • Unkempt house or yard—flowerbeds filled with weeds, clean house dusty, dishes piling up in the sink.
  • Personality changes—suddenly irritable or critical, quiet and compliant instead of vocal.
  • Food—fridge empty, spoiled or moldy food in fridge, cupboards mostly empty.
  • Bills/mail—unopened mail, unpaid bills.
  • Forgetful—misses appointments, gets lost, loses things, forgets important information.
  • Driving ability—dents in the car, traffic violations, feel unsafe letting children ride with grandparents.
  • Isolated—no longer joins bridge club, stopped doing crossword puzzles, no longer sees friends.
  • Mail subscriptions—new subscriptions, sweepstakes entries, requests for donations, sudden new best friend (possible sign of fraud).

While these signs don’t always indicate an immediate need for you to step in and take control, they are warning signs that need to be heeded. They also indicate that the time is getting close for having some serious talks with your parents.

How To Shoulder More Responsibility

So how do you go about the delicate process of shouldering some of the responsibilities your parents can no longer handle alone without causing resentment or encountering outright resistance on their part? Involve your parents in every step of the process, even though their slower pace may try your patience. As they age, your parent’s thinking processes and ability to accept changes slows considerably so beginning the important conversations process early is a good idea as it will give them time to come to terms with changes that will need to happen.

As you begin the process of discussion and effecting changes as they become needed, here are a few suggestions to keep in mind that will go a long way toward making the transitions easier as well as reducing the stress that can develop by becoming full-time caregiver to your elderly parents:

  • Parenting your parent (Role-Reversal)
  • Foster independence
  • Offer respect, compassion & equality
  • Put yourself in their shoes, collaborate & listen

Parenting Your Parent/Role Reversal—The common perception is that, as our parents age and become more dependent and less able to care for themselves, their adult kids have to become the parent to their own parents. This could not be further from the truth. At no time should the roles be reversed. As Sound Options states, in an article titled Rocking the Roles: How NOT to Parent an Aging Parent, we need to remember that “helping our aging parents face their challenges, offering support, and even stepping into the role of caregiver is never the same as parenting.”

So often, we end up treating our elderly parents as if they were our kids—telling them what to do and when to do it, making decisions for them instead of involving them in the process, deciding what they will wear, dictating bedtime, etc. Treating your elderly parents as kids demeans them and takes away their dignity. Nagging, scolding, or bossing your parents around, even subtly, dehumanizes your parents. Yes, more than likely there will come a time when you have to do the most intimate tasks when it comes to taking care of your parents as they revert to more childish ways but that should not include taking away the dignity of who they are—your parents; not your children.

Now, this does not mean you cannot or should not use the same tactics that helped you while parenting your children. These tactics, mentioned in Virginia Morris’ book titled How to Care for Aging Parents, can include: diversion, baby monitor to monitor for trouble, using waterproof pads on chairs or in bed. Other tactics might include encouraging them to pick up old hobbies, giving them small daily tasks to keep them engaged and motivated, taking them to adult daycare so you can continue working, etc. Regardless of how diminished their physical or mental capabilities become, your parents will always be, first and foremost, your parents, deserving of your respect and the preservation of their dignity.

Foster Independence—Your job is not to take over and run your parents’ lives for them but to help them stay independent and in control of their lives as long as possible. Catering to, and doing things for, your parents only renders them more needy and helpless. Yes, it’s much easier and quicker to do things yourself than to let them struggle along, but doing for themselves encourages movement, mobility, mental stimulation, and a sense of autonomy and self-worth that is good for their soul.

Can they make a sandwich? Let them make their lunch and clean up after their efforts. Spilled juice? Let them clean up the spill themselves, even if it takes three times as long as it would for you to do the cleanup. Does your blood pressure rise and do you feel irritation while watching them struggle to put on their pants or button up a shirt or blouse? Walk away and come back in a couple of minutes to see how they are doing. Helping your parents to help themselves is a gift you can give to them, even though doing so creates more work for you.

Offer Respect, Compassion & Equality—Most of us have heard the phrase, “Respect your elders.” You may have even used that phrase with your own kids; however, how many times do we apply this phrase to ourselves when we are caring for our aging parents?

As their faculties and abilities continue to deteriorate, impatience and irritation are easy to slip into when dealing with our aging parents, often without our realizing we are doing so. Treating your parents like they are children is not showing them the respect they deserve; however, don’t beat yourself over the head if you find yourself being short with them or impatient. Just take a moment to step back and honestly evaluate how you are treating them, making changes when needed.

Instead of making every single decision for your parents, offer choices they can choose between. Don’t talk about them as if they are not in the same room. Allow them to offer their views on any particular topic. Listen to them with respect and do all you can to protect privacy and dignity. Involve your parents in making decisions that affect them when possible, even if the decisions are as simple as what to wear for that day.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Collaborate & Listen—None of us can truly understand what it is like to be elderly and faced with challenges that make daily living difficult on the best of days. Yes, we can remember vaguely what it was like to be teenagers because we were teenagers ourselves once upon a time. We can remember our hopes and dreams from those years and even recall some of the struggles we faced but we have not had any experience being elderly and dependent on others to do the smallest things.

We have not lived through a world war, nor the Great Depression, nor segregation but they have. They have had experiences we can never hope to duplicate or experience. They have faced challenges and experienced joys we have not. We live in a digital, instant world that is bewildering to them. Where once they were completely independent, now they have to depend on others to drive for them, help them move around, dress, and maybe even to do the most intimate tasks necessary.

When we are feeling most frustrated with them, we need to step back and try to put ourselves into their shoes, feel what they may be feeling at that particular moment. Ask them to help you try to understand what they are thinking and feeling. Respect their attempts to stay autonomous and independent as long as possible.

Caring for your elderly parents means a change in the parent-child relationship that has existed up until this particular time. While you begin to assume more and more of the caregiving responsibilities of your elderly parents, one fact remains that they are still your parents, deserving of your respect and as much autonomy and independence as possible. Take time to foster and build the relationship you have; caregiving your elderly parents opens the possibilities of much richer and more meaningful interactions that a fast-paced life has not yet allowed.

The next article in this series asks the question, “Do the car keys have an expiration date?” We will also look at some of the challenges you face when it comes time to put your foot down with regard for the safety of your aging parents and the safety of others around them.

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