by Ed Moran, LCSW
I don’t think I can pinpoint the exact moment I first noticed my mother was getting older. Sure, I know on an intellectual level that Mom, like everyone else, gains a year with each birthday, but I’m talking about the physical changes that accompany aging. They were so subtle at first that I hardly took note. Though Mom is still very active at 75 and sharp as a tack, I’ve begun to wonder what life will be like for her in five or ten years. Can she stay in Florida, or should I try to bring her to Connecticut to live with family? Should she sell the house? Will she need home care? Will she need assisted living? Will she want any of these things? And what if she doesn’t want them? What will I do then? You may have noticed already how my anxiety over Mom’s advancing age is beginning to color my thought process, which is not necessarily a bad thing, if kept in moderation. Understanding our own feelings about our aging parents — anxiety and all — is crucial for making the best decisions about their care.
My mother has been very good about communicating her wants and needs, as well as discussing pertinent “what ifs.” If additional care were ever needed, I think my siblings and I would have a great chance of being on the same page with each other, as well as with Mom. But what about the situations where an aging parent is resistant? Naturally we all worry about our parents, especially if they’re alone. We see signs that living independently is becoming increasingly difficult, yet the parent denies the need for help. The situation becomes even more complicated when one parent accepts the need for change while the other parent resists.
In these situations there are many things you can do to facilitate a successful transition from independent living to outside care:
- Be aware of your own feelings. Being in a position to make care decisions for parents can drum up guilt, anxiety and even anger or frustration. It’s important to separate at least some of your emotions from the process, so it does not cloud the decision entirely.
- Utilize support systems. Speaking with friends who have been in similar situations can help you clear your head and reduce your anxieties. Caregiver support groups can also be helpful.
- Reach agreement. Siblings and parents who are on the same page, who agree on necessary changes, can go a long way in bringing awareness to a resistant parent in need
- Try to be patient. Remember that you’re asking your parent to give up a lifetime of independence. It might take some time for them to warm up to the idea of relocating or accepting strangers in their home.
- Use professional relationships. Guidance is sometimes better received from doctors or other trusted professionals, such as pastors or rabbis.
- Start slow. Take a gradual approach with bringing a stranger into the home. It can make a resistant parent more at ease.
- Access community services. Senior-service agencies are a wealth of information about options for parents struggling to live independently.
- Understand your limits. We are not always able to convince a parent to move in with family, allow in-home assistance or relocate to an assisted-living facility. As hard as it is, sometimes it will take a crisis for a parent or their children to accept the reality that Mom or Dad can’t live alone any longer.
Acknowledging that our parents aren’t the spry, active individuals they once were is certainly a bitter pill to swallow. Where there was once great strength, we may now see only fragility. The idea of forcing services on our parents, against their will, may result in powerful feelings of guilt and even shame. Knowing when to step in and how to go about it is crucial in providing them with greater strength, stability and security. They’re our moms and dads — they deserve every bit of help we can arrange, but also to be part of the decision-making, whenever possible.
Ed Moran, LCSW is a clinical social worker at Family Centers Serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, CT and Westchester County, NY. Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.