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We are not our parents’ parent: Balancing caring for an aging parent and honoring their independence

Dec. 5, 2018

I often refer to my 89-year-old mother as the Energizer Bunny.  She’s always on the go and is good at recharging her reservoir of energy. While her walking is limited, my mom still drives and enjoys running errands. On a recent trip to the supermarket, my mother encountered a sudden unexpected storm as she left the store. “There were buckets of rain,” my mother recalled. “Fortunately, a nice woman helped me load my groceries into the car and I managed to get home safely.”

“Mom, how about I set you up with online shopping?” I asked in a worried tone. “You can order your groceries online and they’ll be delivered directly to your home. You won’t have to schlep out to the store anymore. Problem solved.”

“No,” my mother responded emphatically. “Those trips are good for me. I walk around with the cart, get some exercise, choose the food I like, and often meet people along the way—like that woman who graciously helped me the other day.”

Mom was right. My first impulse was to solve the “problem.” But in fact, there wasn’t really a problem to solve, at least not in my mother’s mind. My mom’s independence is part of what fuels her joie de vivre. And the benefits of that independence usually outweigh the risks.

As our parents age, we may find ourselves struggling to protect their safety without encroaching on their independence.  Oftentimes, this can be a tricky balance. And the stakes can be a lot higher than a rain storm or soggy groceries. We worry that our parents will fall and injure themselves. We fret that they’ll leave the stove on and set the house on fire. And we lose sleep imagining our parents behind the wheel, hurting not only themselves, but others as well.

As a senior care professional, I know firsthand that managing the care of a parent is a landscape fraught with obstacles, not the least of which are parents who need but refuse help. Yet our best intentions may not necessarily lead us to the best outcomes.  In fact, assuming the role of our parents’ deciders is an approach that typically backfires.

A friend of mine recently expressed concern about her 92-year-old mother who lives alone and has become increasingly frail. My friend has reason to worry. Her mother had taken a nasty fall while clearing the dishes and fractured her pelvis. My well-intentioned friend hired a caregiver to help her mom with laundry, cooking, and errands, assuming her mother would appreciate the help. But after three days, my friend’s mother said she didn’t want a stranger in her home and fired the caregiver.

There is often a fine line between caring for and controlling our parents. It may be difficult to respect our parent’s autonomy when they are stubbornly refusing help, at their own peril. But the notion of substitute decision making, assuming we know what’s best for our parents in the name of safety, can feel infantilizing and dismissive.

Of course, there are situations where our loved ones become so cognitively impaired that they are no longer able to make decisions on their own. Our family experienced this with my father, who battled dementia for 12 years and we had to step in. Short of that scenario, you have to find a way to be your parent’s care partner rather than care enforcer.

So how do you encourage your parents to get the help they need, but don’t necessarily want? For starters, don’t tell them what to do. “Dad, you need to do X or you must stop doing Y.” If my adult children talked to me like that I would politely, but firmly, tell them to go take a hike.

Next, understand what’s behind the resistance. As people age and struggle with diminished mobility and strength, they feel vulnerable. Rejecting help may be a way of exerting control. Understanding a parent’s anxieties and fears may lay the groundwork for more collaborative decision making.

When introducing the notion of help, whenever possible, start small and offer options. If your father needs a paid caregiver, suggest a few hours a week and involve him in the hiring process. You might find that if your dad clicks with the caregiver, he may be much more receptive to accepting help over time.

And beware of one of the common pitfalls of being a caregiver: the super-woman (or man) syndrome. Keep your guilt in check and recognize that there is only so much you can do if your parent does not want help. Our parents have the right to make their own decisions—even bad ones, yet we love them anyway.

Reflecting back, my mom taught me something about why she wants to keep going to the supermarket.  It’s not just about picking out her own produce and getting some exercise. It’s about doing things her own way. No, I can’t stop worrying about her, but I remind myself there’s always a balance between safety and independence. The time may come when my mom can’t push that shopping cart or even drive. If that happens, we’ll have to come up with other solutions where Mom feels like she’s still in the driver’s seat. As her daughter, I hope to support her as best I can along the way.

Jody Gastfriend has been a social worker for more than thirty years and is vice president of senior care for Care.com, the world’s largest online marketplace for finding and managing family care.

This was originally published on the Yale University Press blog.

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