They Taught You How to Use a Spoon. Now it is Your Turn to Help Them.
An older client of ours was frustrated with her son because he was complaining that she just couldn’t grasp how to use her computer effectively. She reminded him that she had taught him how to use a spoon- and also that it also took him a lot longer that it should have.
We love this story, because when our clients are scared, frustrated, or angry about taking care of their aging parents, we can share it to remind them that this is part of the circle of life. But just because you understand the circle of life, are grateful that your parents are still around, or even are eager to help, doesn’t mean it’s a piece of cake. Here are a few tips we have found invaluable as you are required to do more to help your parents over time.
Develop a Dialogue Early: Start respectfully discussing what your parents would like to have happen as they age in every possible contingency. Share what you believe you will be able to help with and what you won’t be able to do. Talk about what happens when they mentally, physically, or financially can’t take care of themselves. Ask them long before they need it, when they would like you to step in, and when they would not. Ask them to not get upset if you check in with them if and when you see issues in the future. We have one client who set up a code phrase. “I sure do miss Grandma’s spaghetti.” Whenever things get stressful, the parent or the kid can say this to the other as a reminder of how much they love each other to de-escalate the negative emotions.
Get to Know Their People: Who are their advisors, but also who are their doctors? Who are their neighbors? Who are their friends? Where do they bank, shop, eat? Keep contact information on hand for key people in their lives who would know what is happening with them. This is especially important if you live far away from your parents. Make sure their advisors and doctors have your contact information as well. Depending on the situation, you may want their closest friends and neighbors to know how to reach you as well. If possible, join in their social circle and develop some relationships of your own. You may be surprised how helpful this will be to you long term.
Get Help from Others: You are not a God. You do not know everything, and you cannot do everything. Get help. Enlist siblings, your parents social and advisor circle. Enlist your friends. If it’s really hard, which can be the case with a long-term illness, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, seriously consider a support group to help you deal with the responsibility and grief. Your parents maybe had a “Mommy and Me” class for the same reason- it’s ok to find peers, and it may very well provide relief and information. And chances are, your parents don’t want you hovering anyway.
Document Everything: You’re going to need to have information about their health, their finances, and their legal documents. Most people know that. But you will also want information on electronic storage (photos and social media), online banking and credit cards, utilities, and subscription services. Even with all of that in place, it will also help to have a letter that your parent has reminding them of what they think their informal plans are as they need help. If they write that before they need it, they may be much more likely to follow it later, rather than staying in denial about their needs.
Spend Time Together for Fun: This will be a much bigger burden for you and for them if they only time you spend together is doing sucky things like documenting passwords and talking about medication dosages. Time is short but try to spend two to three times as much time having fun with your parent than caretaking. From interviews with people who have cared intensely for their parents until the end, they all cited the down time when they could talk, play a game, grab an ice cream cone, listen to music, or look through pictures as the most valuable. Many said it was some of the most meaningful time with their parents in their lifetime. Keep your expectations low with this but build in the down time when you can relax and just enjoy each other.
Get Plenty of Self-Care: This is moot in the beginning, but as the demands of your parents grow, so must your ability to take care of yourself first. Spending some time in advance finding support resources will help. Resting, talking with friends and peers, enjoying your hobbies and things you care about will all refill your bucket- get plenty of that time in with no guilt.
The emotions of watching your parents in their last years of life can be extremely difficult. For as hard as they are on you, they are harder on them. And if you need to remember that, carry a spoon in your pocket!