Learn to Back Off and Accept Risks While Caregiving

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Due to the enormous number of baby boomers who are reaching retirement, aging is frequently in the news. Sadly, the coverage of this topic is consistently negative, and aging is portrayed as a “problem” that needs to be solved. However, what we do not see on the news is how many smart, active and vibrant seniors are living their own lives. Many of these older individuals would appreciate it if people would stop treating them as if they are dispensable and disposable simply because they have gray hair or use a hearing aid.

I am aware that many people under age 65 need assistance from their adult children or other sources because of health problems. That being said, having arthritis or heart issues, for example, doesn’t make a person cognitively impaired. Therefore, when we offer to help in these situations, the elders’ opinions and wishes must be taken into consideration.

I know only too well that watching our parents get older is difficult. Ideally, they were once our anchors. No matter how difficult life became, there was comfort in knowing that our parents were around, even if they were half way across the country.

Now, when we see their joints needing replacement, their skin wrinkling, perhaps even their memory recall slowing, we cringe. Whether or not we wish to admit it, we are afraid. We know that our parents are not immortal. One day we will be without them.

Acknowledging our parents’ vulnerability is painful for us, and we want to protect them. This is a noble aspiration, but we need to move carefully and respectfully, always remembering that living life well often involves taking a few risks.

People of all ages treasure their independence.

The same people who enjoy an independent life and are capable of living one are often the people who long ago put a realistic plan in place. They drafted the appropriate powers of attorney and created wills because they realize, perhaps more than their adult children do, that bad things happen. Anyone at any age can be rendered incapable of making their own decisions due to an accident or a health emergency. These elders take care of this important legal work because they are realists. Once that is done, they can get on with the business of living, and do so more confidently.

Many people age 65 and beyond are just getting to where they have the freedom to travel. Yes, they may need to make adjustments for some health or mobility issues, but they are not mentally or physically incapable of enjoying life on their own terms. This may be what they have waited for throughout all of their working years. Instead of travel, they may plan to build furniture, create the garden of their dreams or volunteer for a beloved organization, and they have earned the ability to act on these desires.

Don’t let ageism be your guide.

So when do you heed the repeated warnings and evaluate your aging parents’ living conditions, their decision making abilities and their memory? It’s not always straightforward, and the pressure to be vigilant is huge.

The challenge is to avoid making blanket judgements. Treat your parents as individuals and give them the benefit of the doubt if they forget a name on occasion. Younger people forget things, too. Begin by remembering that you are still your parents’ child. They are—and always will be—your parents, no matter what intimate care you will need to provide them in the future.

Aging and dignity are not mutually exclusive.

Aging should not strip people of their dignity. When dignity and rights are removed, people are rendered less than adult. What is the point of getting up in the morning if you are unable to make any choices of your own?

Anxiety over our elders' safety can turn adult children into dictators. That often results in what adult children see as stubborn or reactive behavior on the side of the elder. I encourage adult children to be aware of the needs of their aging parents. Offer to help with some heavy duty work. Certainly we need to be available during any health challenge such as surgery. However, we also need to watch our own natural tendency to take charge and to say that we know best simply because we are afraid for their health or safety.

Many elders would much rather continue doing what they love now for as long as possible than have a guarantee of staying alive until they are 100. They don’t want to be labeled as fragile and protected to the point that, instead of living their lives, they will simply be existing.

When I wrote my book “Minding Our Elders,” I titled it with both meanings of that phrase in mind. To mind our elders means to take care of them when needed, but it also may mean to back off with respect when that is what they want. These loved ones are still our elders. Caring with love can sometimes mean maintaining a respectful distance when it comes to how they live their lives even if we, as adult children, don’t always approve. It may mean biting our tongues while our parents enjoy taking a few risks.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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7 Comments

What a fabulous artical and how I'd wished I'd read something like that eight months ago?

My 90 year old very in dependant dad was given surgery as a result of bowel cancer diagnosed 5 years ago but denied and ignored all the signs. The surgeon said the most we could hope for was a few day to a week. The bowel cancer had Metatastised to his liver and along with a large AAA things looks grim. However, after 3 weeks of family love and wonderful health care, i asked him if he'd like to come home and I would take care of him. It was that complete role reversal that we hear about. I gave up my £30,000pa medical job and brought him home just the same as my mum, 12 years previously, we were there when she took her last breath.

So changing stoma bags and dressings became my life! His 82 year old girlfriend refused to lift a finger! Except to write cheques out for herself!

Just before Christmas, my dad started to get very abusive and aggresive to me... And then told me to go home, his non live in g/f was also very adamant that I should leave them to resume their lives together. I was hurt beyond words but left anyway.

He has continued to get stronger and has just remodelled the kitchen, tiling etc.

I suppose in my ignorance I couldn't see I was 'cramping their style'.. And oh yes, they still do, apparently!!

Once again thank you for pointing out that our elders are people too.

I agree -- such good thoughts! My mom tends to flip from independence to dependence -- wants to be her old self, or wants to be like an infant.... The truth is somewhere in between. So sometimes I also have to hold my mom's hand while she gets discouraged and tries to be more helpless than she is. Sometimes I have to be open to the idea that I might know more about her capabilities than she does -- not that I definitely do, but that I might! Not argue with her, just know within myself.
My backing off was by putting a commode in my moms bedroom. I quit work, left my husband and house and own family (temporarily) to stay with mom in her own home where she wanted to be and was her 24-7 caregiver. (Rather than in a NH). She kept her dignity and was never incontinent, although I was worried sick every night. Eventually hospice was involved for about 2 weeks. But, the last face she saw was mine and the last words she heard was 'I love you'. Still miss her every day, but i know she is at peace.