There comes a point in almost every young or middle-aged person’s life when you find you need to learn how to parent your parents. Suddenly, you are the responsible party. For some, it happens overnight. This was my case. My dad was in a motorcycle accident and all of a sudden, I found myself comforting my mom and helping her navigate life. For my husband, this is coming on gradually. His parents are both still around, but one is in ill health and the other is tired. Does either situation sound familiar? If so, here are a few tips I picked up from navigating these waters.
Caveat – please be prepared for some uncomfortable comments here and in conversations with your parents. This situation is fun for no one. Most parents don’t want to be a burden. Most children want to seem grateful and like it’s no big deal. They are. It is.
Decide Your Parenting Style
Just like with children, it takes different kinds of styles to deal with senior care. Will you be the helicopter type that visits every day and counts out pills? Will you try to be organic and all natural? Will you run a boot camp style relationship and demand they follow the rules no questions asked?
You know how your parent works. You know what they need to hear; what will get them moving and what makes them shut down. I don’t recommend any particular model, but just like with kids I suggest you be firm but kind, close but in command. Your parent will sometimes need tough love and sometimes need a hug. Do both.
You can’t do this alone. If you have siblings, they might help* (more on that later). Perhaps your other parent is still healthy and participatory. Are there other family members or close friends that could be involved? I suggest you get to know your parents’ friends if you didn’t already. Speak to them grown-up to grown-up as to what they suggest for your parent’s care. (Also, these friends are great “replacement parents.” I haven’t shot this trigger yet, but I keep thinking about my parents’ friend, Maria, when I’m having a moment of “I need my mom.”)
Also get help with the physical care of your parent. Could you hire a service (or a niece or nephew) to do some grocery shopping, clean the house, or help with personal hygiene? I remember my dad once telling me he was so embarrassed for his own mother when he needed to get her cleaned up after a particularly bad bout of vomiting and excrement in her final days. He considered it his duty and an honor to be there for her, but she was humiliated. Anyway, I say this to suggest that maybe your parent would rather a “stranger” help with bath time and let you do the other stuff.
Take Care of Their Basic Needs
Speaking of which, your parent might need reminders and incentives to take care of themselves. After feeding a family for how many years, your mom may not find it worthwhile to just cook for herself. In retirement, your dad may not see the point in getting dressed every day. It’s easy for old people to sit at home in front of the TV and get scared of the world. Don’t let that happen. Find easy meals and snacks they could easily pull out. Find activities for them to attend. Could they participate in your kids’ school or help you with some projects in your own home?
Let Them Keep Their Habits
Okay, this one is tough. I’m not 100% sure you’ll agree with me, but here is my humble opinion — let your parent do their thing. Perhaps its smoking, alcohol, Oreos, frantic exercise, whatever, just tell them “you do you.” Now that’s not to say I don’t want you reminding them all the time to “go ahead and eat the burger, but remember what the doctor said.” There is probably something your parent does to their body that is causing their ultimate demise, but y’all….If you lived 60+ years doing something, would you want to quit it in the winter of your life? Here’s the hard part – they are probably going to die sooner rather than later. Let them do it the way they want.
When it comes to habits, let’s really cheerlead for the positive ones. If your mom wants to put on red lipstick in her hospital bed, please help her. If dad breaks out his violin for the first time in years, listen to him or buy him tickets for a father-daughter date to the symphony. Anything that helps your parent feel like their old self is great.
Also, support anything that is striving towards a better self. My mom put herself in rehab for alcoholism a couple years after my dad died. My father-in-law is convinced a trip to the Mayo clinic in MN would hold the answer to his health problems. Great! Go! I’ll pack snacks. As I learned when I joined my mom to support her at AA sleepaway camp, a person needs to want to help themselves. If money, time, and life allow, please let them chase any idea that is a good one.
Which Brings Us To Money
This is where things start to get really sticky, but we’ve got to talk money. The senior crowd is infamous for being bamboozled by online scams, Wonder Mops, and simple silly expenditures. (Aren’t we all?) I strongly suggest you get on your parents’ bank accounts. At the time, Wells Fargo had a set-up where I could go on my mom’s checking account to “supervise” but couldn’t make any purchases or deposits without her knowledge. This made both of us feel better. I could watch her shopping. She knew I would remind her when bills were due. For better or worse, this was also helpful once she passed. Since I was already on the accounts, I could access the money immediately for funeral expenses, etc.
Just like having to hand over car keys, handing over passwords to bank accounts will probably be hard for your parent. Please be delicate here, but also firm. If necessary, remind them the costs associated with where they live (at home, nurses, nursing home, etc.) and that you are trying to take one thing off their plate when it comes to bills.
Involve Yourself in Big Decisions
If you are on the bank accounts, this also means you should participate in any big purchases or decisions. Does your dad want to buy a new Mustang? Is your mom going to sell the house? You parent must understand that you now get to weigh in on these decisions.
Look Them Eye to Eye
From those of us that lost a parent too soon or too suddenly, let me say I almost wish I could be in your shoes. For every pile of newspapers from 1989 you need to clean out of the house, you get one more moment with your parent. ENJOY THAT MOMENT. If you weren’t there before, you are now both grown-ups and can have grown-up conversations. Ask them about their life. Did they ever try drugs? Do they believe in God? Did they live the life they wished for? What do they want to happen at their funeral? An old parent means a long life. While the varnish might be chipping away now, a long life is to be celebrated no matter what the grand finale looks like.
*The Sibling Factor
When I dealt with my parents, I first lamented that I was in this all alone. Now I’m watching my husband and his six siblings try to navigate these waters. Whoa. Being an only child isn’t that bad after all. As an outsider, here are my thoughts for working with your siblings to take care of your parents.
- Most important – remember that no matter how much you like or dislike your siblings, those that don’t have one are so jealous of you we can’t see straight. Related – this effort is for your parents, not for your siblings. Would your parents want to see y’all nit-picking at each other or come to the task like rational humans?
- Play your strengths – if someone is a realtor, they sell the house. The nurse goes to the doctor with mom. The person who lives in Europe but has extra money pays the housecleaner. This is no time for pussyfooting nor for drawing out decisions. It will all even out in the end. Or it won’t, but that’s karma and you can deal with that later.
- Know the personalities. You guys, watching a parent disintegrate takes a toll on your emotions. You are stressed, tired, and sad and you can no longer ask mom for advice. Your sister or brother is living through the same thing. Cut each other some slack and don’t take every outburst personally.
Good luck to you as you figure things out. My lamb, adulting is hard!!!