In 1900, only one out of four Americans lived beyond age 65. Today three out of four of us can expect to live to that age. As a result, today’s adults in their 40s and 50s are the first generation who will be likely to spend more years helping their parents than taking care of their children. In nearly one in four U.S. households, someone is caring for an elderly relative or friend. The help provided includes sorting out medical care, living arrangements and finances, and requires us to make judgments about whether we need to intervene in our parent’s lives.
Financial costs and responsibility for the physical care of an aging parent are not the only demands family members face. Old issues of parent-child relationships may be rekindled, or dormant sibling rivalries may re-emerge. These emotional aspects of family relationships – and simply the need to talk about the future – are often the most difficult obstacles to face.
Most people feel uninformed about the problems of aging, unequipped to help, and unaware of resources that are available to assist them. Nowadays, with children often living far from their parents, these issues are even more complex and difficult. In this situation, it is important to stay in touch by calling them regularly, and to set up a network of neighbors, family or professionals to monitor your parent’s condition and report to you.
COMMUNICATION IS CRUCIAL
Communicating with your parents is very important. Many families find it difficult to talk about issues of aging. Discussing financial situations, plans for living arrangements or health care can be uncomfortable for you and your parents. You may feel that you are prying by asking about their finances. Your parents may fear becoming dependent on you. It’s painful to think about them contracting diseases that might cause lengthy illnesses, deprive them of the ability to function independently and possibly lead to their death.
But once a crisis hits, it is more difficult to find solid footing. Assessing finances – both yours and those of your parents – will allow you to have some idea of what options are possible should a crisis occur. In case your parent is stricken with a terminal illness or becomes incapacitated, you need to know not only where important documents are located, but also to know and fully understand his or her desires and concerns. Planning for these situations in advance can help everyone feel more comfortable in the long run.
Having accurate and easily accessible data will help you understand the issues and prepare you to resolve a potential crisis. Collecting data and reviewing information can be an opportunity to begin discussing issues. It will also help you identify actions that need to be taken or plans that need to be updated. When recording information, be sure to include account numbers, telephone numbers, addresses and the location of all-important documents.
If there are some subjects that you and your parents simply cannot discuss, you might suggest they talk to someone with fewer emotional ties – perhaps another family member or friend, their lawyer, accountant, financial planner, physician or social worker.
Try to involve your parent in as many aspects of the planning as possible. Listen to, respect, and have compassion for his or her desire for autonomy and control. Work together to set up a flexible care plan, and remember that it can be changed when need dictates.
Talk to professionals early on to learn what options, such as housing and in-home support, are available. Sometimes there are waiting lists, particularly for some of the better nursing facilities or retirement communities. You may want to put your parent on those lists as a precaution. It can be useful to educate yourself ahead of time about community resources that are available.
Discuss possible living arrangements before a crisis hits. Try to be realistic about what it would take to live again with your parent, in her house or yours. Regardless of what you may feel others expect of you, living with your parent may not be the best situation in your particular case.
Monitoring – or perhaps working to curtail – a parent’s activities that pose safety risks (such as cooking, driving or operating machinery) can be very important, although likely very difficult.
It’s important to educate yourself about health and fitness in the elderly. If you can identify early warning signs – such as poor hygiene or eating habits, difficulty walking, or being suddenly aggressive or argumentative – these problems can be more easily addressed. You should be able to distinguish between normal signs of aging and those that indicate possible illness. While physical changes in later life are common, illness, confusion and depression are not “normal” aspects of aging. Likewise, changes in sleep patterns, pain and unexplained weight loss or gain are not normal parts of aging. They signal problems that are often treatable, and should be discussed with a physician.
If you would like to speak to a social worker about resources available to you and your aging parents, please call the MAP Office at (212) 397-4802 to schedule an appointment.
(Sources for this article were “Aging Parents and Common Sense: A Practical Guide for You and Your Parents” (2nd Ed.) sponsored by The Equitable Foundation and Children of Aging Parents (CAPS) and “Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal” by Beth Witrogen McLeod (John Wiley & Sons, 1999), Chapter 4 “Caring for Aging Parents.”)