Raising an Aging Parent: Deciding What's Best for You and Them by Dr. Ken Druck
I had the pleasure of meeting Ken Druck this past summer at Camp Reveille. Ken works closely with an organization called ACCESS (AirCraft Casualty Emotional Support Services) which is an air disaster bereavement support network dedicated to connecting those who have survived or lost loved ones in plane crashes with individuals who have lived through similar losses. Dr. Druck speaks not only for ACCESS, but all around the country, helping people and organizations build resilience and turn adversity into opportunity. He has been a lifeline to families and communities after some of the nations worst tragedies. Dr. Druck wrote this article about caring for an aging parent and I thought would be perfect to share this month since November is National Family Caregivers Month. His article below is called, Raising an Aging Parent: Deciding What's Best for You and Them.
My 91-year old mother may still be able to reduce me to a blithering 8-year old at times, but I consider myself blessed to have her around, sharing the wealth of simple, day-to-day phone calls, weekend visits, holidays and grandchildren, as well as family gatherings and vacations. Her generosity in times of prosperity and support in times of adversity have been immeasurable. And for this I am eternally grateful.
We may always have our issues with our parents (everybody does) but underneath it all, we love them, understand they won’t be with us forever and cherish the time we get with them.
China recently put a law on the books that essentially tries to legislate filial feeling – a mandate that says adult children must visit and support their aging parents or face legal ramifications. Could this be an effective way to motivate us to care for our aging parents? My experience says absolutely not. Instead, we should be educating adults about the real needs of the elderly, and investing our time and money into a "movement" cultivating an educated, compassionate response to aging.
The challenges of caretaking or supporting an aging parent can be daunting. The reality is, our aging parents are faced with serious changes and challenges that may or may not be taking into consideration or equipped to emotionally handle. Threats to their health and well-being, losses of loved ones, mobility, independence and identity are all very real. Even the strongest of aging parents need our love, support and understanding. They may also need our help making painfully difficult decisions. Doing this requires a whole new level of trust, empathy, involvement and vigilance on our part – as well as the emotional and spiritual strength to come to terms with how they're changing and even losing them.
After years of literally cleaning up after us, putting up with the turbulent teens, supporting us as we launched our adult lives and countless other things since then, the support and caretaking roles are beginning to be reversed. And it’s now our turn to step up -- and take care of them.
What exactly does it mean to “raise” an aging parent? Just how responsible are we for their financial, mental and physical health, well-being, lifestyle and security? Should we be finding them a place to live, for example, when they can no longer stay in the family home? Moving them in with us? Becoming their caretaker? Taking over their affairs? Supporting them emotionally? Giving them counsel and even “tough love” when they stubbornly resist changes that are difficult but necessary. Hold their hand as they struggle? Or even helping them die?
The answer to all of these questions that’s right for you is somewhere between “not enough” and “too much.” Coming up with the right formula for how to raise your aging parent may be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever been asked to do. Like raising a child (another insane proposition), the challenges of parenting, caretaking or supporting an aging parent can be daunting. Fist of all, it’s not a stationary target, or something we figure out overnight. If you’re lucky, you parent will be cooperative, accommodating, rational, reasonable and accepting of change. If you’re not, they may go kicking and screaming. If this is the case, my condolences and a few tips. Pray for superhuman patience, flexibility, empathy, humility, forgiveness, and an inordinate willingness to learn through hard-fought experience. When you feel resentful, helpless and like giving up, come up for air and take a break, lean on close friends and family for support, think things through with a trusted advisor or confidant, exercise, go into nature, calm your thoughts (meditation, music or chamomile tea), eat dark chocolate, find constructive ways to vent your anger and frustration, get a pampering fix (massage, mani & pedi, etc.), sit down and write, “10 healthy boundaries I need to set,” go to the nearest Comedy Store or take in an uplifting book or movie.
Here are some other important things to consider when dealing with your aging parent:
1. For the Best Results, Act from Love Not Guilt or Resentment
Check your motives, intentions and reason for taking care of your aging parent. Behavior that is inspired by love, caring, empathy, affection, selfless giving and a compelling sense of moral or ethical responsibility gets significantly better results that that which is driven by obligatory guilt, shame, blame, self-loathing, fear and/or resentment. All of us have the potential for true compassion -- or obligatory guilt. Cultivating our compassionate side and clearing ourselves of guilt and shame may not be easy but they give us our best shot at truly being a good son or daughter.
2. Live and Give Within Your Limits and Have a Life
Some of us are better prepared and positioned to help an aging parent than others. Our personal wealth, resources, time, health and family situation and ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries are all factors. The key is to live and give within your limits. Financially, mentally, emotionally or physically over-extending ourselves while taking care of an aging parent can result in burnout, depletion and abuse (of self and them) when we eventually get pushed too far. Honestly assessing “What I can do” and “What I cannot do” and lovingly communicating your limits sets the table for understanding, agreement and solid arrangements between adult children and their aging parents. Clear expectations prevent unnecessary stress, misunderstanding, disappointment, hurt and fear of abandonment.
3. Beware of “Never Enough” Scenarios
Sadly, some of us have gotten caught up in guilt traps and guilt trips. We try to control the other person by inducing guilt in them. This dishonest and destructive habit of selfishly getting an aging parent or adult child to do what you want destroys intimacy and trust. And breeds corrosive resentment. Left feeling, “No matter how much I do for (my adult children or my aging parent), it’s never enough” defines the feeling of helplessness, failure and rejection experienced by those caught in a mire of family guilt. If you’re becoming aware that you do this, an apology is a good way to repair your relationship (‘s). To fully restore your integrity, learn how to catch yourself guilting -- and then make a conscious choice to communicate your real feelings, needs and desires in a direct, forthright manner.
4. Make a List of What’s Available and What’s Not
Break it down. By itemizing what you’re willing to do, give and be in concrete terms, and listing what’s not on the table, you are setting the table for success with your parent. How? First, by being clear at the front end of any relationship, you’re defining the scope of what’s going to happen and hopefully coming to an agreement. This reduces or even eliminates the possibility for misunderstandings, hurt or angry feelings, stress and disconnection. Increases the chances of making peace. And gives both of you a chance to discuss how you’re going to fill in the gaps so your and their needs are being met. It may turn out that they need a part-time caretaker, someone to give them rides to and from the market, more of a social life (less dependent on you and your kids), more financial support to cover medical expenses, to see a geriatric psychotherapist for counseling or help forging a better relationship with their physician. Making things explicit will not only remove the elephant, martyr, pleaser, procrastinator or victim from “the room,” it will get everybody on the same page about sensitive yet important matters that need attention.
5. Empathize and Show Compassion but Set Healthy Boundaries
Rescuing, saving, enabling behavior shows no regard for the well-being of the giver. Destined for turbulent, frustrating, enmeshed relationships, they feel unappreciated. Those who learn to give from genuine empathy and compassion, on the other hand, are better able to set reasonable limits and healthy boundaries. Some of us are better at saying “no” or resisting the seduction of a demanding, narcissistic parent (or adult child), when they ask for “more.” It takes great courage, strength and self-respect to enforce your limits, especially when the co-dependent child in you is (irrationally) convinced that their life and happiness are your responsibility.
6. Rest and Replenish: Practice Good Self-Care
Caretaking someone you love who is struggling with the ills of getting older is a physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding activity. Like anything we aspire to be good at, we need to get in “game shape,” balance energy expenditure with rest and replenishment and delegate some of the caretaking to others even more capable than us. Spacing the time between visits, limiting visit times, guilt-free vacations, turning over some of the responsibility to siblings and professional caretakers can all be effective strategies for self-care.
7. Set a Gentle but Firm Tone for The Transfer of Power
At some point, you may find yourself gradually or abruptly taking over some responsibilities from them. Having consulted and coached families through estate planning and the transfer of generational wealth for over 3 decades, and having gone through it in my own family, I know from experience that taking the lead on putting your family’s legal, fiscal affairs in order can and will evoke fear, distrust, jealousy and greed. Long-held sibling rivalries can resurface and destabilize even the most technically astute estate plans.
8. Successful Relationships Are a Two-Way Street
The best insurance for successful relationships at any age of any kind is clear, honest communication, good listening, respect and compassion. Communicate how you feel and what you need in a tone that makes the other person want to listen and learn. Draw them out to see how they feel and what they want -- and listen attentively. Parenting us as we grew up, perhaps we owe them some support as they grow old. Deciding exactly what that means is up to us. Whatever you decide, let your love and caring lead the way. Take care of yourself, being clear and clean with your parents, set healthy boundaries, live and give within your means. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent, child or relationship. Raising an aging parent, above all, means lifting them up with love, affection, forgiveness, patience, gratitude and understanding. And being at peace that we/they did the very best we could.
What Your Aging Parent Wants You to Know:
1. I Still Have a Mind of My Own. Nobody, young or old, wants to be bossed around and/or dismissed because of their age. Aging parents realize that there are some things they now need our help to figure out -- but they want us to know how important it is for us to ask (rather than tell) them what to do, think or believe.
2. Speak to Me With Love and Respect. Tone is everything. Aging parents realize the sandwich generation is moving at the speed of light to get everything done -- but they want us to speak to (rather than at) them using words and a voice that conveys respect and affection, rather than impatience and frustration.
3. I Am Still Your Parent. Even though they are older and may be a step slower, our parents are forever our parents. Treating them like (helpless) children can be insensitive and demeaning. We may be taking over greater control for their care and affairs, but we need to occasionally let go, ask for their help/advice and allow them to enjoy being a parent.
4. Sometimes, I Still Want to be In Charge. Decisions are best made (and implemented) when they are made in concert with your aging parent. Be a patient communicator when it comes to talking through/deliberating about important decisions.
5. You May be Smarter in Today's World, but I Still Know More About Some Things. Aging parents want us to tap into the wealth of relevant knowledge they have gained from years of experience. Listen and validate their contributions.
6. I May Not Always Show it But I Love and Appreciate You. Some parents, kids, families and cultures are more demonstrative than others when it comes to showing love and affection. Aging parents want us look past their occasional grumpiness and know the depth of their love and gratitude for all the ways we are trying to make their lives better, richer and more comfortable.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., has been an award-winning author, speaker and family business consultant, working in the field of psychology and resilience for over 35 years. He is the author of several books, including The Real Rules of Life and The Secrets Men Keep. Follow his blog at www.KenDruck.com or find him on facebook.com/kendruck
©2013 Ken Druck, Ph.D. -- "Raising An Aging Parent: Deciding What’s Best for Your and Them”