Recently, a retired woman excitedly confided happy news to a friend. Her daughters had shown excessive attention to her and her husband at Thanksgiving. She and her husband were getting older, and a major transition was approaching. This extra care and attention was monumental for her. Why? It showed that her daughters were, for the first time ever, starting to accept an important reality.
After decades of parenting, soon, the children would be taking care of their parents. And they knew it.
This transition is happening for more and more families. In the US, this is fueled by the aging of the baby boomers. This generation was born when soldiers returned from World War II roughly 75 years ago. This largest generation in US history is in need of greater care, and their children are stepping up to the task.
So what can we, the children of these aging parents, expect in the years to come? And what can we do to help our parents navigate this transition?
Help your parents accept that major change is coming
The first hard task of preparing to care for your parents is accepting this change yourself.
They have been there for you. They were the ones who helped you learn to walk, pushed you to be your best in school, and passed on their good (and bad) habits.
It is hard to accept that soon, the time will come where you might have the chance to directly return the favor. You might need to help your parents by feeding them by hand and changing diapers, as they once did for you.
Be honest with yourself. The cost of a long life is the inevitable decline in abilities. This is really the best-case scenario. The alternative is a tragic accident that cuts life short.
So in order to be ready for this outcome, understand that your parent or parents are getting older and approaching a time when they cannot safely take care of themselves, and part of the responsibility falls on you to keep them safe.
Common reasons why you might need to help your parents
- Recovery from a prolonged illness or a fall causes rapid mental and physical decline from which full recovery is not possible,
- Recovery from a sudden accident or fall requires hospitalization and a need for changes in the home for safety and security,
- Dementia caused by Alzheimer’s or a related condition creates unpredictable decline, memory loss, and safety concerns,
- Typical loss of physical and cognitive skills associated with old age.
While there may be clues passed down from previous generations about the fate that awaits your parents, predicting the future is an imperfect science. One or more of these may interact over time to speed decline and increase the need for support.
While it is possible that your parents may live long, full lives without assistance from you, it is far better to be prepared for the worst possible outcome. In that case, you are prepared and ready to help. Without that preparation, you may find yourself lost, confused, and responsible for the safety and wellbeing of one or both of your parents without a plan or resources.
Ask, suggest, and be available
This transition is hard for your parents, too. It is no one’s wish to lose skills and have their children assist them in daily tasks like toileting and eating.
Thus, it is common for parents to become argumentative if you raise the topic too frequently or too forcefully. Your best bet is to ask, suggest, and be available.
Periodically, in phone calls or routine visits, ask questions about your loved ones’ plans for getting older. Follow their comments and read their nonverbal cues to decide if you can discuss it further or leave it alone.
You can try vague questions like, “Do you have plans for where you will live as you get older?” Or you can try specific questions like, “Have you thought about moving to a home with a single-level floor plan?”
Even if your parent does not have an answer at the time, you can initiate some important thinking. Help your parents think about this aging process. You can prompt them again after some time has passed.
A benefit of asking first is that it gives your parents a chance to share any thinking they may have already done. Sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised by the amount of planning our parents have done for their own future that they have never shared with us.
In addition to asking questions, you can help your parents make wise plans by suggesting best practices. Gently nudge them toward intentional planning by proposing best practices.
“I read an article that said when older people have a walk-in shower/tub combo, it dramatically reduces the chances of falls and broken bones,” you might suggest one day.
Or you can try, “I was discussing with [insert sibling’s name here] our concerns about you getting older. Do you think you could talk with us one day about plans you have made for adjusting as you get older?”
Spending time with your parents will help some of these conversations to arise organically. If you stop in twice a year and suddenly ask about retirement homes, it will naturally feel threatening and run the risk of backfiring.
Instead, plan to spend increasing amounts of time with your parents. Helping with daily life tasks – cooking, shopping, or cleaning are common holiday activities that can give you a glimpse into how they are coping with aging. Then you can assess for yourself whether there is a decline in ability. You can also see if that decline can be accommodated or if it is dangerous and needs to be addressed.
Coping with the stress of aging parents can be a challenge. If you want help navigating this or other life obstacles, talking to a therapist can help. In person or online consultation is available from Sakina Issa.