"Are my parents capable of taking care of themselves? Do they... need help?"
For adult children, these questions can trigger intense feelings of sadness and confusion – feelings I faced for the first time about 10 years ago, when my father suddenly needed quadruple by-pass surgery. While hazily trying to function within a cloud of stress and worry, I realized for the first time that my parents are not invincible. And at some point – either now or in the future – caregiving roles will shift. I may eventually be the one responsible for their care and well-being. While I truly believe it is an honor to be able to give back to my parents, it is not an easy mental transition to make.
As we celebrate the holiday season, we often spend more time with family and relatives than our usual schedules allow. Looking around the festive dinner table, many adult children suddenly recognize their loved one is growing more vulnerable with age and subtle signs lead to big questions. Spoiled food in the fridge. Lapses in short or long term memory. Hot burners left on.
"Is Dad showing signs of Alzheimer's?"
"Do I need to take the car keys away from Mom?
"Are these warning signs that my parent needs help?"
Since I know that many families will face these questions over the coming weeks, I wanted to share some tips from our senior care expert and licensed clinical social worker, Jody Gastfriend. Jody's own moment of sad recognition occurred 15 years ago, when her father simply wandered away from a holiday gathering and was eventually diagnosed with dementia. Inspired by her parents' strength and personal family caregiving experience, Jody offers the following tips from 25 years of working within the senior care field:
Tip #1: Communicate concerns with empathy and respect
It is important to balance your concerns with an appreciation of your parent's need for autonomy and control. Parents may feel overwhelmed from fears of losing independence and react negatively to concerns expressed by their children. Jody recommends starting the conversation by exploring your parent's perceptions and needs to gain a better understanding of what is most important to them, before introducing suggestions for long term care.
Tip #2: Join forces.
If possible, speak with your siblings before the visit with your parents. Have they noticed any changes, particularly those that reflect a shift in your parent's baseline level of functioning? Together, formulate a plan to move forward. When you do talk to your parents, Jody says it is important to communicate as a united front. Stay focused on your parent's wellbeing and avoid getting stirred up by unresolved family conflicts.
Tip #3: Do the research.
Now that you've formed a team, ask everyone to do a little investigating. What local resources are available? Find out the costs and types of care that may be the right fit for your parent.
Tip #4: Consult a professional.
After you've armed yourself with the knowledge of the local options, talk to an expert. A medical diagnosis is important. And, if you are afraid that a parent is showing signs of Alzheimer's, get him or her evaluated for Alzheimer's Disease or dementia. Likewise, if you are unsure whether your parent qualifies for Medicaid, talk to a elder law attorney in the same state as your parent. A geriatric care manager, such as a nurse or social worker, can help with many aspects of the caregiving process.
Tip #5: Have a constructive, patient conversation.
Hold a family meeting or speak with your parent one-on-one, whichever is more feasible for your family. Open and ongoing communication is necessary to meet the changing needs of your loved ones as they age. Unless your parents are deemed mentally incompetent or a danger to others, it is their right to make their own decisions-even bad ones. The best approach is to practice understanding and compassion in getting your message across. Even humor can be effective at times.
Being proactive and communicating collaboratively with parents and siblings to create a plan will likely yield the best results in the long run.
Check out these articles for additional reading:
How to Talk to a Parent about Driving
Sibling Strife: How to Resolve the 3 Senior Care Issues Siblings Fight About Most
What You Don't Know about Elder Law Can Hurt You
If you are caring for an aging parent, when did you first realize that he or she needed care? How did you talk to your parent about your concerns? If you are currently worried that your parent may need care, check out our senior care counseling service to talk with licensed social workers about your family's specific needs.