Three Sundays ago an allegedly drunk mother left a party in New York City with seven young girls in her car—to take them to a slumber party. According to the New York media, people were very concerned about her driving. One person unsuccessfully tried to prevent her from getting into the car, but no one stopped her. Her car sped out of control and crashed. An 11-year-old girl was killed; others were hospitalized. A radio news report a day or two later, said that the mother had regained consciousness, was distraught, and was under suicide watch.

Questions: under what circumstances should we force people to do—or not do—something for their own good? What are the consequences of doing nothing in potentially life-and-limb-threatening situations–because we think nothing will happen? And when do we act too quickly and change people’s lives unnecessarily and not for their own good?

There’s no question, we must intervene in situations that threaten life and limb. That’s easy to say, but may be difficult to do. And I know, from a school counselor’s viewpoint, it takes discipline—not easy when we know someone well. As a counselor there is no choice, however. Child abuse and potential suicide, among others issues, require immediate intervention, just as certain issues with parents require immediate intervention.

Denial, an emotional mechanism that operates without our being aware of it, can keep us from acting. (Remember denial protects us from having to deal with a reality until we’re ready to deal with it.) Could that be the excuse for the people at the party? Can that be an excuse when older parents are clearly a danger to themselves and/or others and no one intervenes? Should we do a reality check with our parent’s doctor or a trusted friend, who knows our parents, to rule out our possible denial in questionable situations? It seems that would serve everyone well.

Knee-jerk reactions, on the other hand, cause us to make major changes quickly, possibly unnecessarily. So how do we determine necessary from knee-jerk?

A highly respected head of elderly services at a family counseling agency tells us, for example, that adult children are quick to rush their parents into assisted living when they see, for instance, “food rotting in the refrigerator, mail piling up, and the home or apartment a mess.” But, she says, “these parents most likely need ‘care management, not assisted living’ and could probably remain in their home for quite a while (by getting help from a social worker or someone experienced in working with the elderly).

In one case new prescription glasses were the answer. A home aide hired to clean up a few hours a week, solved another problem. Forgetfulness was caused by easily changed medication, not dementia. Bottom line: if it isn’t immediately dangerous, make haste slowly.

While we can’t be perfect, it seems we can save ourselves and our parents unnecessary problems and unhappiness if we keep the above in mind. And these websites may help:
http://mayoclinic.org/, http://www.helpguide.org/, http://www.familydoctor.org/ (American Academy of Family Physicians, click ‘seniors’), http://forms.lighthouse.org/hny/search
www.afb.org/seniorsite, (American Foundation for the Blind), http://www.alz.org/ (Alzheimer’s Assn)

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