Aging Parents. Adult Children: 5 Key Thoughts

Do Parents Need Nurturing?

Jane Brody’s September 16, 2013 column, When Parents Need Nurturing, is a short read. Many topics she touches on are amplified in past Help! Aging Parents posts. For example,  she mentions parental demands, feelings of obligation, sharing of responsibilities with or without sibling help, and the emotional component.

She offers some constructive suggestions, and a psycho-therapist’s “take” that we “can’t change what parents are going through beyond providing help and support to the best of our ability.” Then she follows up with a psychologist’s advice that adult children should “act out of love, not guilt or resentment” and “live and give within their limits.”

In a prior post we met Mitzi, who promised never to put her mother in a nursing home; ultimately had no choice; and years later couldn’t shake deep feelings of remorse and betrayal. We learned about Jean, who had a “big heart.” She ran herself ragged–as she tried to satisfy unappreciative, demanding parents who could never be satisfied–until she accepted and followed the wisdom from an older person whom she respected.

A long post focused on the residue of the early parent-child  relationship decades later ((be it good or problem-ridden). Do we realize we model behavior for our children’s treatment of us in our later years when they observe how we treat our aging parents?  Siblings’ involvement–or lack thereof-as well as that of the only child’s responsibilities were the subjects of several posts.

If we weren’t proactive in the sensible ways Ms. Brody has suggested; if our relationship with our parents causes us undue stress, and we feel like we can’t go on because we’re “living and giving beyond our limits,” seeking help (from a social worker skilled in geriatrics or from a psychologist or psychiatrist) can help us untangle, understand, regroup, and use different strategies.

With the above in mind, 5 key, previously written about, thoughts from Help! Aging Parents:
1.  “People Change, Not Much.”
2.  “Put on your mask before assisting others.” (Airplane advice.)
3. “What’s the Goal?” Important question to ask ourself to keep from getting sidetracked when dealing with difficult issues.
4.  “Is it Better for Them (Parents) or Better for Us?” Is our priority our parents or  ourselves? Answering this helps avoid hasty, emotional, possibly life-changing decisions (especially when we are under stress).
5.  “Angels Can Do No More.” (Grandma’s advice.) Remember this when we’ve done all we can.

Related: Aging Parents. Discouraged Caregiver-Children.
Caregiving Siblings and Uninvolved, Less-involved Brothers and Sisters

Changing weekly: “Of Current Interest”(right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities, plus some free and some fun stuff–to help parents age well.

Do Adult Children Sometimes Hinder Older Parents’ Aging Well?–2

With 6 Important Questions to Ask Ourselves at End of This Post

It Takes A Village
(Taken from my manuscript)

A social worker who worked with older adults in New York, reminds us “It takes a village to raise a child,” then points out that at the other end of the life cycle “It takes a village to keep the grandparent in the village.”  Meet Bob.  For him the village provided both care management and relationships.

Bob had no family to watch out for him, yet he continued to live in the small suburban New York studio apartment he and his wife, Ruth, had shared until the day of his death at age 84.

He was 72 and retired on a small pension when Ruth died.  He had the beginnings of macular degeneration, was an unrepentant smoker, and had only a few friends.  But they supported him in his time of need by inviting him to dinner, giving him the key to their home so he could play their piano, and having him help them by walking their dogs when they were at work.  In all, five unrelated people, decades younger than Bob, looked out for him.

In the twelve years following Ruth’s death, Bob’s macular degeneration worsened; at 80 he quit driving.  One dog owner wrote his checks, which he signed, so his bills got paid.  Another friend took him marketing until walking became a problem, whereupon she did his grocery shopping.  Two years before his death he could walk only a short distance before wheezing, coughing, and labored breathing made walking difficult. Going to the doctor became difficult. At a certain point he refused to go for anything other than a flu shot.

Responding to a suggestion of assisted living, Bob let it be known that he had no intention of going into one of “those” places, where he’d have half the space and wouldn’t be allowed to smoke.  He didn’t need good vision to navigate his small apartment—or to light his cigarette for that matter.  His home was his anchor, his safe haven.

When his unopened mail overflowed the table, and food began to mold in the refrigerator, and the apartment became a mess, another of Bob’s younger friends called the town’s social services for the aged.  Bob was interviewed and charmed the social worker with his fine mind and love of music and poetry.

The result: Disaster Masters came to clean up—and out—Bob’s apartment, with Bob sitting there directing what stayed and what went.  Meals on Wheels began bringing food. A home-aide came for an hour, three mornings a week at 8am, to do laundry and straighten up before going to her other jobs.  The social worker arranged for three volunteers to come weekly for socializing. One, a woman, loved poetry and read poems to Bob every Thursday.

With the necessities taken care of and additional daily monitoring by two neighbors on his floor, Bob was able to remain in his apartment until the morning he died peacefully in his bed at age 84.

Bob had no family members to care for him.  He liked living alone.  Contrast his experience with that of Ellie’s grandmother, in Eastern Canada, who was surrounded by well-meaning family members.

A Flower Pulled up by the Roots

     “My grandmother was a farmer in the early days. Later she and my grandfather lived in a home with a big piece of property where Grandma raised flowers and vegetables.  She had such pride in her garden and was in it every day she could be.  When Grandfather died, her children wanted her to move to a smaller place and not have the burden of a large home and grounds and they talked to her about it—again and again and again. 

     “In time, Grandma said she would move.  I felt this was the wrong thing for her to do, since the garden meant so much to her, and with 28 relatives, I was going to organize it so she’d have someone visiting each day, could keep her independence, and could be monitored.

     “Finally, one day she said: ‘Put the house up for sale.’  She then moved in with my mother—and died a year later.”

According to the wise octogenarian (quoted previously in the manuscript), we also need to realize that “As you age, you lose the energy to fight… and give in.”  This may be the reason Ellie’s’s widowed grandmother finally agreed to move in with one of her children.

While the “village” enabled Bob to live out life on his terms without family involvement, the loving adult children and grandchildren who surrounded Ellie’s grandmother exerted influence that produced a different outcome.

With usually only one chance to do it right, asking ourselves the following questions can serve as guidelines for better decision-making:

  • When making decisions or promises, what is the priority: our needs or our parents’ needs?
  • Are our decisions aimed at maintaining parents’ independence until it’s no longer safe for them to remain as they are?
  • Are we mindful of not prematurely undermining any of the essential ingredients for aging well–self-esteem, independence, socialization, having fun (activities)?
  • Do we have all the information we need to make—or help our parents to make—the best informed decisions?
  • Is it possible that old emotions from our growing-up days creep into and influence our decision-making?
  • If unresolved relationship issues remain, does it make sense to seek the counsel of others when making important decisions?

(The above, taken from my manuscript, is copyrighted, nonfiction except for the names,
and may not be used without permission.)
*         *        *

While most of us are no doubt excellent caregivers or reliable mainstays for our aging parents, there can be siblings as well as other family members who think they know what’s best. It’s not only frustrating, but can lead to outcomes that are worse for parents than if they had no children. Since we usually have only one chance to do it right, the guidelines for decision-making will hopefully come in handy as we invest ourselves in helping parents age well.

Note: Small changes on this page include News Briefs” above at far right.

Our Quest for Perfection as We Try to Help Parents Age Well-2

Should we give up expecting perfection?
“Is it culture or our psychological make-up that causes our stress and regret? Do we, perhaps, place unrealistic expectations on ourselves– especially when we feel responsibility for aging parents?”

These are the questions posed to Dr. Bud (hover over Senior Advisors tab above) after writing last Tuesday’s post. Thoughtfully explaining some of the emotional obstacles that can block even the most devoted adult children’s quest for perfection, he begins:

1.  “Caregivers can’t expect perfection…perfection isn’t the major issue. They may hit a home run doing an optimal job and still not be appreciated…They can try to make it as good as they can–but it’s difficult (especially early on when parents need help) to comprehend how parents feel. Adult children can expect something to be helpful, when it may not be.  Also sometimes parents are hard to help–they can frustrate us….. then we don’t do our best–or we avoid–because of the ambivalence we’re feeling.”

2.  “Our motivation may be a desire to make up for things we didn’t do and should have done”–internal guilty feelings.

3.  Or it may involve a reassessment: “The thought of losing a parent can make us want to back up and redo.”

4.  “As caregivers, we expect success–we expect our actions will result in a more comfortable end-of-life experience. But we may think it’s not turning out that way.” Why? “Because there’s an expectation that what we’re doing is going to be received with gratitude and that’s not always the case.” Disappointment isn’t failure.

5.  “There can be resentment and disappointment with–or shown by–siblings,” which interferes with our doing things the way we would like. “Discussing allocation of responsibilities with siblings early on can be tricky (the one who lives closest feels “put upon,” for example). Getting it out on the table before-hand is a good idea and can relieve stress later on.”

6.  Be aware of unrealistic expectations: We can’t expect everything to go the way we think it should–or expect other family members to do things the way we think they should. Good communication among family members plays a large role in alleviating stress and regret.

                                            *                        *                        *

When it comes to caregiving, understanding reasons for our actions and our parents’ stage in the life cycle helps us realize what we can try to control. With the rest, we do our best–or we can seek help and/or support from mental health professionals (social workers who specialize in family counseling, psychologists, psychiatrists) or our clergy.

Striving for perfection may be our preferred way of addressing things (not right or wrong way, but preferred way). While parents are relatively healthy and living independently–and we, literally, aren’t  caregivers–we can feel we’ve done it right– even to perfection– as we try to help them age well. Yet we do live in an imperfect world. That causes stress.

When I mentioned the deliberate imperfection in the traditional beaded Indian necklace, I was reminded that Persian rugs also contain one purposely-woven-in, odd-colored strand. Some cultures recognize humans aren’t perfect. Something to think about.

Click to enlarge

Father’s Day and Adult Children Siblings

Getting Together for Father’s Day

As a far-away-living daughter I never gave much thought to being with Dad on Father’s Day. Didn’t mean I didn’t want to be with him. It just was impractical. In addition–

  1. Mother was alive for all but 4 Father’s Days so my parents and brother celebrated the day together, often with relatives on my father’s side of the family.
  2. After Mother died, my father spent Father’s Day with my brother. They had a ritual of going out to breakfast together at the Hilton Hotel many Sunday mornings; Father’s Day was no exception–except that they also went to an older cousin’s for dinner. She considered my father like a father, not an uncle. Her father died when she was young and my dad stepped in where he was needed to help his sister and her two daughters (one being this cousin).

It never occurred to me to check whether or not this was convenient for my brother–he never complained; I thought he enjoyed it. Nevertheless having heard Francine Russo, author of the recently-published They’re Your Parents Too!, discuss her book at a gathering two weeks ago, I found myself having questions–questions about how my brother felt about being the child who was there and my being so far away, even though I assumed major responsibility for orchestrating my parents’ care with them as they grew old. So I telephoned today to check out the Father’s Day “obligation” and was glad to find my perception was correct.

Fortunately my counseling training kicked in well over a decade before my parents had health issues. In my head I had loosely carved out a plan of action for when the time came. Why? Because aging grand-parent issues, that affected some of my counselees’ families and found their way to my office, provided a “heads up.”

Father’s Day and other major holidays signal family togetherness. Adult brothers and sisters and their families join aging parents to celebrate on these occasions. Their adult lives may be different from the life of their youth, their competencies may have changed, but on these holidays the family members who come together fulfill most aging parents’ wishes.  Remember: time with family is the gift most older parents say “means the most,” so it can’t help but contribute to helping parents age well.