SHOULD WE FORCE ELDERS TO DO WHAT WE THINK IS BEST?
The short answer is “no”–assuming aging parents have what 101-year-old Sr. Advisor R calls “a good head on their shoulders” and they’re doing nothing that threatens life and limb. If we try to force something that even suggests limiting parents’ independence or autonomy, we enter dangerous emotional territory. Consider the following–if applicable–it just adds to the difficulty.
If parents were alive before the mid-1950’s
Respect for elders was a given in earlier generations. Most adult children wouldn’t think of suggesting they knew what was best for mentally competent parents unless a doctor recommended it. (In those days there was such respect for doctors that men, who weren’t doctors, would make a reservation at a restaurant using Dr. [instead of Mr.] Smith hoping to get better treatment. Males far outnumbered female doctors.)
Today it’s common for adult children to think they know best; indeed feel entitled to make– or initiate making– major decisions for parents without being asked: eg. when to stop driving; when to move; where to move. The implicit threat to elders’ independence can be explosive.
What is the motivation to force elders to do something?
1. our feeling about parents’ judgment
2. the consequences of–and for–our relationship with parents (earlier, now, future)
3. Parents’ age, health, near-accidents or scary events, a doctor’s recommendation or friends’ recommendations may contribute.
Possibly omitted, however, is this thought–
“Is it better for them or better/easier for us?” (One of this blog’s Key Thoughts. See right sidebar bottom). To elaborate:
- Is it better for parents to live less long and be happy?
- or to live longer and be miserable–or simply tolerate life waiting to die–because we’ve forced them to do something they regret every day?
Of course, intervention is necessary if parents do things that threaten life and limb–theirs or someone else’s. More about that in next post.
In my Dad’s case, it was driving. Whenever I went west to visit my parents at least one person would ask: “Don’t you worry about your Dad’s driving at 88, 91, 92?”
Memorable is the story Dad told me over the phone, not knowing I’d already heard–from a friend 3,000 miles away– a judgmental version because it was “all over town.” Dad was driving at dusk in June after dinner, on a familiar, very-curvy, 2-lane road with another old couple. A heavy Oregon rainstorm began. He pulled off to the road’s shoulder because visibility was poor, deciding to wait until the rain subsided. Dad said a young man stopped to see if he could help and suggested Dad follow his tail lights, which Dad did. Everyone got home safely.
Friends mean well. I did live far away. That said, Dad had that “good head on his shoulders.” Also I rode with him each time I visited and checked his car for scratches or worse (none). Plus my brother lived in town and checked. Dad gave up driving later on– on his own. (see post).
Same theme–different specifics. Sr. Advisor, R, my mil, still lives alone at 101 as many readers know. She has cleaning help 4 hours a week, a gardener once a week, and the most helpful, neighbors anyone could imagine. Unfailingly when someone asks how R is and if she’s still living alone, and we answer “she’s fine but life’s harder,” we get the same, fairly judgmental response–something like, she shouldn’t be living by herself–can’t she go to assisted living, or have someone live with her?
My husband is an only child. Understandably it would be much easier for us if she would agree to leave her home, but it’s out of the question. She values her independence and autonomy above all. Assisted living or a companion raises such emotion, we don’t even tiptoe there….anymore. We last tried a year ago.
Bottom line: We’re not doing what’s easier for us. We’re doing what’s better for her. And how can that be? you ask. She could fall. Yes. Does she have an alert pendant? Yes, but we don’t think she has it with her…it’s probably on her night stand—and yes, at least it should be in her bathroom. Yes, to Is she getting enough to eat? She doesn’t cook for herself, does she? Yes, she does.
As long as her mind is basically good, we have a choice:
1. Force her to do what we think best and have her be miserable each remaining day she has left on this earth–or
2. Respect her wishes, knowing the drawbacks and that she’s as happy and engaged as she can be in a world where she feels she can’t depend on things any more.
But she can depend on us to uphold her independence and autonomy as long as she “has a good head on her shoulders.” Whatever happens, we’re supportive of the fact that she will have lived life her way and we have done our best.
Related: Things to Do When Parents are Resisting Help —an excellent article by a geriatrician.
Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.