If you’re a baby boomer lucky enough to have aging parents, chances are you’ve been noticing changes in your parents’ activity level, health, diet or mental state. You want to help, but you’re not always sure how. You need information, but don’t always know where to turn. In this series of columns, I hope to enlighten adult children with information they can use to help their aging parents thrive, regardless of their situation.
To get started, let’s go back to that place and time when you first began to worry about your parents’ health and well-being. Perhaps it began with a thought like this:
My parents should not be driving.
My parents need to get out more.
My parents are not enjoying life the way they used to.
My parents shouldn’t be eating that way.
My parents really need to exercise.
My parents shouldn’t be living alone.
Each one of the above statements expresses a desire to influence the way your parents live, not because you want to take control, but because you care. You’re concerned that your parents aren’t living to their fullest potential, or worse, that their current lifestyle could be unsafe. But let’s face it, you’re still uncomfortable with the prospect of parenting your parents.
Even so, experts like Virginia Morris, author of “How to Care for Aging Parents,” agree that it’s important to talk openly with your parents about:
• Their fears, needs, priorities and wishes;
• Health and medical care (what should you know if you have to make their decisions one day);
• Housing options (where they might want to live if they couldn’t remain at home).
Pick the right moment
By far the best time to bring up these questions is before a crisis occurs. If there is a triggering event, be sure to pick a moment that will not add additional stress. Do not blindside them. A large family gathering is probably not the place. Consider scheduling a special time to talk; let them know that there is something important you would like to discuss. Ask them when and where would be good for them. It might be useful to set up a recurring time to talk about upcoming decisions and let the rest of your time together be free of difficult decision-making.
Your parents most likely have noticed the changes in their behavior and lifestyle that you have begun to notice, and they may not want to acknowledge them. Make sure to ask questions that will help you understand their experience and perception of the aging process. Be willing to follow their lead. There will probably be some surprises that will help you be a good resource and support for them throughout this time of change. Listen.
You no doubt know your parents well and realize how best to start this dialogue, but seeking the counsel of someone who has personal or professional experience with seniors may be of great help. You may want to confer with an outside expert on your own before starting the dialogue with your parent or ask your parent if it would be okay to include that person in your discussions. Having someone from the “outside” also may diffuse some of the tension that can accompany family discussions about coping with change.
The inkling that your parents may benefit from additional support may become clear suddenly, perhaps as the result of a specific event, or may be a gradual realization, as the subtle clues of diminished happiness and fragile health add up. But it can’t hurt to be prepared. You will have some of the groundwork laid and know how your parent feels about many potentially tricky issues.
So, talk early, and talk often. And stay tuned to the next senior section of “Are your parents thriving?” in the Arizona Jewish Post.
Fran Donnellan has served in leadership roles for 25 years at select Arizona retirement communities. She is a past member of the American College of Health Care Administrators and a former/founding member of the board for the CareGiver Training Institute. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from University of Missouri and studied geriatrics at Arizona State University. She currently serves as executive director for The Fountains at La Cholla in northwest Tucson.