How to Help an Aging Parent
Life alone in your 80s and certainly 90s can be tough on our parents as well as on sandwiched kids, as we’ve found. We’ve gradually learned many do’s and don’ts that depend, of course, on a parent’s condition, physically, mentally, and financially. Here are our tips:
1. Most want to remain independent and retain their dignity. Don’t automatically do stuff for them, engage them in choices when possible, and ask if it’s OK unless it has to do with their safety or they’re so incapacitated mentally or physically. They need to exert their free will, so they feel in control.
2. Don’t be patronizing or talk to your aging parents as if they are infants. Some elderly have trouble processing information and might not understand cause and effect. There is no reason to argue or try to contradict what they say in most cases. Try to agree on significant points because many will not change at their age.
3. Do things graciously. Try not to have an edge to your voice or voice your displeasure with them. They might be messy, not shower, have to wear pads, but that could be you some day. Let your children see that you have respect for your aging parents and hopefully they will feel the same way about you when you’re in your 90s, if you’re so lucky.
4. Don’t take over their finances until it’s clear they can’t handle numbers, write checks, make decisions about spending; be sure you have the legal power to do so.
5. Make sure you have arranged for power of attorney among you and your siblings for their health and finances. Both of us are in the same areas as our mothers so we are the designated ones. Meg’s youngest sister does the investing, pays most of the bills online and does all the taxes.
6. Be sure you’ve dotted all I’s and T’s about living wills, health proxies, and even that difficult discussion about a funeral, where and how they want to be buried, and who in the family gets what. Do whatever estate planning is necessary to avoid sibling or other family conflicts down the line and ask your parents to tell you what they’ve done. It’s a difficult but necessary talk.
7. Spend time with them because once they’re gone, you’ll regret it if you didn’t do so. Meg’s mother, who loves material things, now would rather have a visit from her than another scarf, design magazine, flowers, or box of chocolates. Barbara’s mother most values live conversations and interesting news. Call regularly, daily, go visit in person, and take them out if they are mobile. Be sure that mothers get their hair and nails done; fathers also need hair trims, and both may need some new clothing. Become their personal shoppers and personal assistants, and get them dressed; it’s important not to let them remain in bed or be up in their pajamas all day.
8. Bring young children to visit them. It’s good for them to be around kids, who breathe energy into a room, and it’s good for your children and grandchildren to get used to being around older adults. It engenders respect.
9. Listen to their stories again, and again. They do repeat themselves, but why tell them. Just listen. Write the stories down, have them talk into a tape recorder or cell phone, or video tape them like an oral history project. Their stories can be rich and insightful.
10. Show them photos in albums or on your personal devices and videos of family memories, which will help recall happy events. Barbara’s daughter with a young child prints out photos and sends them as postcards. Do puzzles and play other games together, which will jog brain cells and help engage them.
11. When talking about the past, look up their old friends on your iPhone or iPad to see if they’re still alive. Barbara stays in touch with several and two years ago took both women out on Valentine’s Day. Talk about old movies and look up their favorite old Hollywood stars and authors of their favorite books. Share about your life and what’s going on in the world; it keeps them alive. If they’re not capable of traveling, take photos of a new home, a child’s college dorm, a graduation, birthday party that they cannot attend so they can still share in happy family events. And as their grandchildren and great grandchildren grow, do Face time or Skype so they maintain a connection.
12. Encourage other family members and friends to stay in touch. Get your kids to call or visit them weekly or monthly; whatever works. They sometimes need a nudge in their busy lives. One of Barbara’s friends includes her mother at an annual New Year’s weekend at their country house in upstate New York.
13. When making decisions for your aging parents, even if you are the primary caregiver, involve siblings and other key relatives in all decisions if possible. In any caseworker meetings, if your parent is in a senior assisted living or skilled nursing facility, conference in or Skype with siblings, other relatives, and the professionals so they feel part of the decision.
14. Had a rocky relationship? Get over it. There is no closure if you stay angry and avoid smoothing things over and being with your parents while they are alive. Deal with your old baggage and complaints; selfishly, it’s time to make peace for both generations about prior complaints and insults. Some day they will be gone, and if you’ve had any kind of loving relationship, even a fragile one, there will be a hole in your heart. Better to mend it now while you both can. There are no redos, or second acts.
15. If you are the primary caregiver, take care of yourself. Care giving can be taxing, stressful, and exhausting at times. Meg has often had to deal with middle of the night frantic calls, and many during the day. Both of us have enlisted the help of our children, though we don’t want to burden them; we view this as our responsibility and way to pay back—and even forward. Reward yourself in any way you like: a manicure or pedicure, movie, new book, great dinner out, big box of the best chocolates.