Helping our elderly family members with life transitions
Dixie, 92 years old, was living in Florida, with her two adult children residing in the Pacific Northwest. Increasingly, she was becoming housebound. She started telling her daughter-in-law how she was ready to “go home to the Lord”. Her son became increasingly concerned. He wasn’t sure what to do to help his very independent, strong-willed Mom who was developing age-related memory problems. He felt strongly that it was impractical and dangerous for her to live on her own. And, her quality of life was rapidly declining.
Dixie is now almost 96 years old having come for a “visit” with her son and daughter-in-law that has lasted four years! It’s been a labor of love on the part of her family, but stressful too. Keeping her occupied and comfortable has been a community effort. But, as in many other families, it has caused a major schism between her son and daughter—both of whom have very different ideas about how her care should be handled.
I struggled with similar issues with my mother, who reached a point in her life where she was losing weight and eating canned soup in her retirement home at 90 years of age. I was finally able to convince her to move into an independent living facility with congregate dining only after my brother and I assured her that we would move her ourselves. When she finally made the move, the quality of her life vastly improved.
This generation of older adults is fiercely independent. They don’t want their children telling them what to do. At the same time, their capacity to assess their own independent living skills is frequently impaired by age related physical and mental changes. My mother insisted she could safely drive, until she drove her car into a tree! Finally, she surrendered her driver’s license.
Adult children struggle to insure the safety and wellbeing of their parents. It’s frequently a thankless job. Older adults aren’t always appreciative of their children’s involvement. Sometimes, there is nothing that adult children can do! Their parents are legally competent to exercise poor judgment when it comes to life decisions—just as they are.
Here are some suggestions for helping elderly parents.
Be persistent and patient. It took me a full year to convince my mother it was time to move. It was just hard for her to wrap her aging mind around such a big change. But I didn’t give up—I was gentle and persuasive.
Look for an angle that your parents will appreciate. My father was only willing to give up his car when we convinced him how much money he would save. This argument made more sense to him than our concerns over his safety.
Encourage them to accept help. This can be very difficult for some very self-sufficient older adults. Start small—What about household help? How about someone to cut the lawn? Make changes in small doses.
Engage friends and family members. It helps to have several different messengers deliver the same message. United you stand, divided you fall. There can be easier said than done when family members have very different ideas about how to handle the same situation.
Sometimes, you just have to let go. It’s sad, but true. Sometimes you have to let the natural consequences of parental decisions set the stage for a more appropriate living situation. An older adult may have to break a hip, be hospitalized, and then discharged to an assisted living facility before they will leave their home. It’s very hard when you can see this coming and are helpless to do anything about it.
Be respectful. If we are lucky, we may get to live to a ripe old age. Your children watch what you do very carefully. You can expect to be treated in the same way that you behave toward your parents.
Sometimes your parent’s health care provider can help. I worked closely with my mother’s doctor who supported my suggestion that she move.
How have you handled these concerns?