Help Parents Age Well: “The Worst Advice for Family Caregivers–Parent Your Aging Parent” Forbes blog 9/4/l3

The belief that we become parents to our parents has always seemed so disrespectful. We are always our parents’ children. They are always our parents. Even if not a biological relationship (eg. adoption), there’s the emotional component of being a parent or a being child, that endures.

Howard Gleckman, currently a resident fellow at the Urban Institute, and a Forbes blog contributor posted the following on the Forbes blog:

The Worst Advice For Family Caregivers: Parent Your Aging Parents

In the always-complex, often-painful world of family caregiving, there is no worse advice than this: When your parents need help, you must reverse roles and become their parents.

Here is the reality: If you are the adult child of an aging parent, you will always be their child and they will always be your parent. They may need your help with the most intimate personal care. But you will never become their parent.

I saw this all the time when I was researching my book Caring for Our Parents. I had the opportunity to spend as long as two years with people who needed assistance and their family caregivers. I saw heartwarming successes and sad failures. Often the difference was the ability of adult children to understand their role.

I was thinking about this after seeing Courtland Milloy’s column in this morning’s Washington Post describing his experience as a long-distance caregiver visiting his parents in Louisiana.

He wrote, “Some elder-care experts say that when aging parents stop acting in their best interest, the grown children must “reverse roles” and simply make them do the right thing.”

As he learned, this advice is so wrong on so many levels.

To start, what is the “right thing?” Who are you to decide what is right? As a matter of law and, I believe, ethics and morality, each of us gets to decide the “right thing” for our own life, as long as we are cognitively able and our choice does not harm others.

A wise man once said it like this: “When I was 22, I did some things my parents thought were remarkably stupid. But I was an adult and they were my choices. Now, my parents may be doing some things that I think are remarkably stupid. But they have the same right to make mistakes as I did.”

Put yourself in the position of an aging parent. As you become physically frail and cognitively limited, you lose control of your life. All those day-to-day decisions that healthy people take for granted—when to go to the movies, when to eat, when to walk across the room and even when to go to the bathroom—are increasingly shared with others. It can be embarrassing and demeaning.

And it is why a big part of frail old age is about maintaining independence and respect.

Now comes your child. He may be 50 years old, but he is still your child. And he is saying, “Mom, you’ve got to go to the doctor. You’ve got to stop driving.  You’ve got to move to assisted living.” He may have just parachuted into town for a few days. He seems rushed and impatient. And you, who on some level still view your son as the 18-year-old who left home to go to college, are resentful, embarrassed, and maybe even angry.

Needless to say, this is not a great environment in which to make decisions.

What’s the alternative? As much as possible, share decision-making. As the adult child, never start any sentence with the words: “Mom, you’ve got to.…” Instead, try, “What do you think we should do….” Help them choose.  But work together as much as you can.

Of course, if a parent or other relative is emotionally or cognitively incapable of making decisions, you may have to step in. But that is much less common than many suppose.

To his credit, Milloy finally got it, despite starting out with that awful “reverse roles” advice.

Like the proverbial bad penny, this parenting your parents business keeps coming back. Years ago, when I was writing for Business Week, an editor suggested a consumer caregiving column. It would be called, you guessed it…Parenting Your Parents. I told her I’d love to write the column but the name had to go. That was the last I heard about the idea.

And let’s hope this is the last any of us hear about the worst advice a family caregiver can get.
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Help! Aging Parents’ philosophy has remained constant on role reversal. Unless aging parents’ actions threaten life and limb (our parents’ or anyone else’s), and assuming parents still have a good mind, we remind ourselves we are their children and act with due respect.

There’s a delicate balance here, especially when certain life-changing issues, like driving, are involved. Granted people (old and young) can be stubborn and irrational. Yet there are ways to accomplish our goals and remain respectful, given that our parents still think clearly.

When frustrated, sharing our concerns and getting help from geriatric social workers or our parents’ doctors makes sense. They’ve no doubt heard the frustrations many times before and should be well-equipped to help us deal respectfully and effectively with aging parents.

Related: ARPS’s Driving Discussion Seminar

New: “Of Current Interest”(right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities about cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s, plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.

Aging Parents: Do We Become Parents to Our Parents–Part 2 of 2

When aging parents can no longer do for themselves…

If we agree that we are our parents’ children; if we acknowledge parents’ natural desire to have their children look up to them with respect; how do we reconcile a popular belief (or is it an attitude?) that when parents get to the point where they can no longer do for themselves and we must take over responsibilities similar to those of parents with young children–we become parents to our parents?

Shortly after publication of her book, They’re Your Parents TooFrancine Russo, spoke to a group in NY last year.  I asked her thoughts about being parents to our parents when they become dependent.  Her response was to the effect that feeding a parent isn’t the same as feeding an infant.  The task may be the same; the relationship is entirely different.

Do we see ourselves as parenting our spouse if he or she has disabilities or neurological problems that require us to do the caregiving dependent parents may require?  I think not. With parents, as well with a spouse, isn’t respect and upholding dignity an overarching aspect of the relationship? Regardless of the situation or duties required of us, can that be ignored?

A friend who instinctively does it right took care of her elderly father after surgery that left him temporarily incontinent. Wanting to maintain her father’s dignity and sensing his unease when she had to help with certain things she quipped “Dad, I’ve been married for a long time now–don’t you think I’ve seen it before?”

I haven’t forgotten her sharing this with me some time ago. I remember thinking what an adult, respectful way to handle an awkward situation.

Since we can’t get inside people’s heads to know how much they’re processing (even when we may think “nothing,”) can we take the risk of making a loved one feel like a child? We may be devoting ourselves to help aging parents, we can feel weary, exhausted, and unappreciated. But is it worth undoing it all if–even for a nanosecond–we make our parents feel diminished?

I remember my mother at one point after her stroke saying something like “I took care of you as a child and now you’re taking care of me.”  I also remember my response (which I must admit to this day I’m happy to think I made). It was something like “You’re right,  Mom, and you know what–now it’s payback time so don’t give it a second thought.”

I do think when we help parents age well–or at least as well as possible– and with dignity right up to the end, we have few–if any–regrets. And that’s a gift we not only give our parents–but ourselves as well.

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.