Aging people are people in transition. The repositioning of finances, retirement, the deaths of loved ones, a declining ability to perform basic tasks, the loss of driving privileges, and the onset of a chronic illness are examples of transitions which require the entire family’s immediate attention. Ideally, our parents will accept and adjust to lifestyle changes and request our assistance; but for many reasons the call for help hardly ever comes. In fact, our parents might “cover up” for each other because they feel ashamed and powerless and don’t want to burden us.
The number-one reason behind not asking for help is our parents’ strong desire to remain independent and in control of their own lives for as long as possible. Behind the scenes, however, problems may be brewing that will negatively affect every member of the family: running out of money, mismanaging medications, falling, and driving when it is no longer safe are a few of the potential dangers. Also, the decline in our parents’ abilities can be so gradual that the entire family may adapt to situations without even realizing that problems exist.
To avert an eldercare work/life crisis, start today to pay attention to the telltale signs which indicate that your parents may need assistance now. Here are some suggestions from my book, The Complete Eldercare Planner.
Look And Listen For Clues
Things may seem normal on the outside. Some changes are barely noticeable. Once in a while we all forget details or put things off — but when a pattern of neglect develops, it may be serious. Remember that dementia (mental deterioration) is not a normal part of aging. To uncover problems, make astute observations and listen carefully (in-person and over the telephone):
- Basic Tasks: difficulty walking, dressing, talking, eating, cooking, step-climbing
- Hygiene: infrequent bathing, unusually sloppy appearance, foul mouth odor
- Responsibilities: mail unopened, papers piling up, bills unpaid, prescriptions unfilled, cooking pots look burnt, mismanaged medications, low food supply, home interior/exterior not maintained, automobile dents and scratches
- Health: weight loss, problems swallowing, no energy, skin burns from cooking, black and blue marks (may be signs of falling), hearing loss (look for signs of lip reading and talking loudly), seems withdrawn without reason, bed wetting (urinary incontinence), spilling and dropping things (check carpet for stains), complaints of dehydration (thirst)
- Isolation: no interests or hobbies, no transportation available, phone calls not returned
- Attitude: verbally or physically abusive, talks about being depressed, abusing alcohol or drugs, extremely argumentative, has undergone a recent emotional or medical crisis.
- Cognitive functions: consistent memory lapses, confusion, loss of reasoning skills, gets lost walking or driving, repetitive speech, wears same clothes over and over, cannot recall names of familiar people or objects, unable to complete a sentence.
Encourage Parents To Take Responsibility
If you conclude that eldercare issues demand attention, your next step is to engage your parents in a conversation that helps them to become aware that a problem may exist. Family discussions will go much smoother if you keep parents involved in their own decision-making. This approach fosters mutually responsible partnerships and lessens the potential for relationship conflicts. Encourage parents to take responsibility for lifestyle changes by asking probing questions such as:
- Is anything bothering you?
- Is there something you would like to talk about?
- Do you need help with anything?
- I see (hear) that you’re upset. Would you like to talk about it?
- I can see (hear) that this is very important to you.
- Then, offer limited assistance with questions such as:
- What can you do about this problem?
- What have you done so far to solve the problem?
- What are your options?
- Given what you already know, what do you think is your next step?
- Who can help you with this?
Silence is a very powerful communication tool. After you ask a question, give your full attention when parents respond. If they feel understood and non-threatened, they may volunteer more revealing information, and be willing to compromise when you attempt to resolve other sensitive issues. When their answers seem impractical to you, resist the temptation to give advice and opinions. Instead, ask your parents specific questions that lead to their own ability to conclude whether or not a particular response is realistic:
- Can you tell me more about this?
- How do you plan to accomplish what you want?
- If your plan doesn’t work, what else will you do?
Despite your good intentions, your parents may resist your offers of assistance. If and when this happens, temporarily remove yourself from the situation and call upon someone who has more influence in dealing with your parents– another family member, your parents’ friends, the family doctor or a clergy person may be more effective during difficult times.