Aging parents? Growing kids? You’re not alone: According to Pew, nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent over 65 and are also raising children. And since many of us are starting a family later in life, we’re grappling with very young (and needy!) ones, as opposed to somewhat self-sufficient teens.
Do you go to your kid’s nursery school conference or to your mom’s doctor’s appointment? Do you spend an hour on the phone with her or do you silence the phone, detach and watch Netflix with your family? Who coordinates appointments? Who checks in with mom and dad to make sure their house is clean, medications are in order and food is stocked? What if you work? What if you live far away? What if your siblings don’t help out? It’s stressful.
Hebrew SeniorLife just rereleased an updated ebook: “You & Your Aging Parents: A Family Approach to Lifelong Health, Wellness & Care,” which delves into those tough topics in a clear, detailed, reassuring way: How to know when it might be time for a nursing home or assisted living, how to support your parents if they stay at home and how to understand the challenges of aging.
I talked to ebook contributor Tara Fleming Caruso, Hebrew SeniorLife collaborative care advisor at NewBridge on the Charles, about how to cope.
Have the tough conversations early
Don’t wait until you’re in a crisis situation, urges Caruso. “When you’ve started to notice that there are changes with your parents, you’ve already waited too long. Start thinking about it when there’s nothing wrong, when you can have a conversation when they’re cognizant and physically able to participate,” she says. Some adult children might hesitate to bring up sticky things like finances and health care. Will mom be offended? Will dad resist? Which brings us to point No. 2…
Instead of making the conversation about their decline (“Gee, mom, I notice you’re slowing down a bit!” might not go over well), make it about you. Appeal to their parental instincts. Tell them that you want to make life less stressful and that you’re curious about how to honor their wishes. Say that having these conversations will ease your own mind. You might need to have multiple conversations over time. It might take a while to uncover their true desires or fears: Maybe mom really wants to stay at home, no matter what. Maybe dad is actually eager to try out assisted living. “It’s a role reversal, and parents might feel a little offended, as though you’re trying to take over, even though they’re the parent,” says Caruso. “Frame it as: ‘Can you do this for me? Because I want to make sure I meet all of your needs.'”
Get buy-in from a third party
If your parents and siblings are on the same page about future plans, lucky you! But this is rare. Sometimes a sibling might not recognize mom or dad’s true needs, or they might be resistant to helping out. That’s when it’s time to enlist a third party, such as a physician, family therapist or aging life-care professional (formerly called geriatric care managers, often found through your town’s Council on Aging or through the Aging Life Care Association), who can make objective recommendations without any emotional baggage. Consider them your elderly-life concierge. These life-care professionals aren’t covered by insurance, and they usually cost between $80 to $180 per hour, says Caruso. “But the work is front-loaded, and the headache and time you’ll save is worth it,” she says. They can make recommendations about housing, facilitate communication between physicians and families, recommend legal resources and offer crisis interventions, among other services.
Most of all, they provide a neutral, objective opinion, and they’re trained to help frazzled families get on the same page. Many are psychologists, social workers and therapists armed with logistical savvy and emotional intuition. These professionals are also trained to notice things that you might not be able (or might not want) to see, due to stress, inertia or anxiety. “People have a hard time seeing their parents declining. Because of the protective nature of our brains and our defense mechanisms, we want to see things as still OK. Know that the expert might say something the adult child might not be able to see, but it’s in the elder’s best interest, such as, ‘Mom or dad is no longer able to live independently anymore. I would recommend they go to assisted living, and here’s the six reasons why it’ll improve quality of life,'” Caruso says.
Don’t be a martyr
You don’t know it all. You can’t. “You’re not a professional elder care expert. Give yourself permission to ally with one,” says Caruso. Maybe that means joining a support group, hiring a companion to take mom to the doctor, outsourcing dad’s groceries to a delivery service or enlisting a home health aide to help with household tasks. Your parent might resist having someone in their space, but again, says Caruso, place the blame back onto yourself. “Say, ‘I’m stuck between wanting to spend time with you and raising my child. I’m having a hard time giving you the things that will improve your quality of life. I would feel better if we just tried this. Let’s just try it once.” Assure mom or dad that nothing’s permanent (even if it might end up being so).
Appeal to the ego
Instead of framing outside help as an intervention, position it as a special opportunity for your parent. Caruso often pairs elderly clients with younger companions through a knowledge lens: Perhaps a young person wants to help them write their biography or learn about their former career. Position outside assistance as though your parent is providing a service to their helper, too, not just the other way around. “This is less threatening to the elder,” Caruso says. “Stroke the ego a bit.”
Most of all, “take care of yourself in order to be the amazing adult child you’ve always been,” says Caruso, whether that means joining a support group, exercising or seeing a therapist. Your parents once took care of you. Now it’s time to take care of yourself, so you can care for them.