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Originally published March 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 19, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Coping with aging parents' decisions — even when they seem wrong

Watching an older parent disintegrate — living in unsafe conditions, giving money away, becoming isolated and depressed — is among the most difficult stresses experienced by adult children today.

Final column in a series.

Watching an older parent disintegrate — living in unsafe conditions, giving money away, becoming isolated and depressed — is among the most difficult stresses experienced by adult children today.

We could tell our kids what to do when they were young, but our parents are a whole different kettle of fish. They don't have to mind us or even listen. As long as they're mentally sound, the law protects their right to do what they want, including living dangerously.

What prompted this discussion was my response to a stressed reader several weeks ago whose 96-year-old father refused to be happy about the major changes she'd made in his life to make him safe. Although her intentions were good, I said, her dad had the right to do what he wanted, including saying no. This elicited e-mail from another daughter (and many others) at her wits' end dealing long-distance with very stubborn 90-year-old parents. They refuse to make any changes, she wrote.

"We have failed and are left with anguish and the realization that there's no solution at all." She implored me to change my advice.

I wish I could. I might have been able to prevent my parents' own crisis a decade ago had I been able to make them do what I wanted. But I couldn't. As long as my dad was competent mentally, he had the final say over himself and my mom, who had Alzheimer's.

Personality drives much of what happens in eldercare. Some parents plan years ahead for the changes they'll need because that's who they are.

Others require a gentle nudge from family and friends, perhaps their physician.

Still others respond to stronger measures, such as:

Guilt: Tell your mom how your worry about her has hurt your marriage, for example, and how you need her help to restore it by knowing she's safe.

Tough love: Refuse to be at your dad's beck and call every day when you have a job and he can hire in-home help (even if he doesn't want to).

Negotiation: Convince your mom to move to an assisted-living facility for six months, and promise she can return home if she doesn't like it.

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There are many ways to peel this carrot, so be creative.

I believe it's honorable and right for adult children to convince their parents to try options that will make their lives safer, healthier and more pleasant. Nonetheless, no one can force parents to do anything against their will as long as they're mentally competent.

So what do you do if you have a parent like this? Two simple words: Let go.

In eldercare, there's only one person you can count on or control: you. Once you've done as much as you can to help, you have to stop; there may be some things you can't change.

As one reader put it, "I just got a call from my very frail, 90-plus-year-old father, saying he and my mom have decided to remain in their home — this from a person totally dependent on his 90-year-old wife and sole caretaker, in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from my brother and me.

"No one said that growing old and watching your parents grow even older would be easy! I realize how little training we have for this role, especially when it's not one we're asked to play but feel we must. Given my parents' state of mind, which is quite lucid, I bow to their wishes and have come to terms with the idea that 'their decisions are their own.' "

A geriatric-care manager or therapist might be able to help adult children come to terms with their parents' choices. Some counties have programs that can provide this counseling free, especially if dementia is involved. Adult Protective Services (APS) protects people 60 and older from harm (by others or themselves) and may help in extreme cases.

For both resources, contact the Eldercare Locator office at 800-677-1116 or go online to www.eldercare.gov.

There's also a different angle to consider. Today's oldest generation — now in their 80s and 90s — survived the Great Depression and World War II, creating one of the most stubborn, frugal and independent generations in American history. When they were growing up, people didn't live routinely into their eighth or ninth decades as they do today. They had no role models to prepare them.

What does this say about us when we're in their shoes?

As the reader whose angst started this conversation wrote: I hope my generation will build a body of knowledge and experience "that will enable us to recognize the symptoms in ourselves in future years and not go down this path of denial."

Amen.

Liz Taylor's column runs Mondays in the Northwest Life section. With 30 years experience in the aging field, she writes and conducts workshops. E-mail her at growingolder@seattletimes.com or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. You can see all of her columns at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/.

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