Few changes in life are as difficult to handle as the aging of our parents. The people who used to feed and clothe us, make our decisions for us and protect us from danger seem almost overnight to become our children, often financially dependent, physically weak and sometimes unable to decide what’s best for themselves. This is why it is very important to know how to deal with aging parents.
Very often, children are not able to accept this gradual reversal of old ways without fear and resistance, especially when the time comes for a family to recognize that an elderly parent can no longer get along without some kind of help. As a result, decisions made when an elderly parent becomes widowed or sick or short of money are often not the best ones.
The feelings that intrude on all these actions have to do with guilt as well as love, fear as well as understanding, egos pitted against egos, sibling rivalries, hostility, resentment, duty, affection, need for approval – a whole tangle of family history and relationships.
Some children over-react by smothering their aging parents in a blanket of protection, robbing them of self-esteem and independence. Of all the indignities of old age, loss of control over one’s life may be the most painful. Other children make the opposite mistake in dealing with aging parents and withdraw, denying that they need any help at all. That reaction leaves them abandoned and helpless at a time when she or he most needs the reassurance of a loving family.
Some middle ground must be found, if a family is going to make the right decision. The most important step, though perhaps the hardest, is for everyone to be open and frank. A child can give advice and at the same time say something like, “I feel terrible saying this because I’m talking like your parent.” That approach expresses the real situation, but leaves the aging parent with room for dignity. Children should be careful to allow them to do as much for themselves as possible if they want to care for their aging parents the right way.
You can’t knock down their survival techniques and expect survival. If an aging mother enjoys scrubbing kitchen floors, no one should stop her just because she is old. The little rituals of life are what keep people going. Overprotection is as bad as neglect. In fact, it may be another form of neglect because it denies their individuality and wishes.
In helping a parent make decisions, children should be sure they don’t confuse what is best for them with what is best for their parents. Unless children are honest with themselves they will end up trying to impose a choice that may not be best for the aging parents, and they will be coerced into accepting it because they are afraid to displease their children.
If a family decides an aging parent should move into a child’s house, then the question of his or her autonomy has to be balanced with that of the other family members. Here the most important thing once again is openness. The ground rules should be established well in advance. People should discuss who does what and under what circumstances. The older person should be encouraged to participate in the family, but she or he should not be allowed to disrupt the family.
People with a history of openness can just say, “Hey, Mom, I can’t stand us both in the kitchen at the same time.” And of course the elderly parent has the same right to make his or her feelings known. Whatever both of them decide when it comes to where the parent should live, everyone should be aware of the problems and pain that are inevitable when they have to move out of a life-long home.
In caring for aging parents, you must know that their whole identity as a human being is where they’ve lived and what makes up their home. And often, experts say, old people do not long survive the move from their homes. Leaving home is like losing a member of the family through death, and many old people never recover.