As parents age, they often need assistance with everyday tasks like preparing meals, managing medications and making health care decisions. The need for help seems straightforward enough, however many adult children approach caring for elderly parents in a way that is perceived as overbearing instead of supportive. It’s hard to know how to help aging parents without taking over, especially since seniors are often reluctant to ask for or accept assistance from others. So, how do you take charge without making Mom and Dad feel as if they’ve completely lost their independence? How do you get the job done without coming across as condescending or making them angry?
Caregiving Affects Parent-Child Relationships
How many times have you found yourself “showing” someone how to do something by doing it for them? This approach to teaching and learning is second nature. While it might make sense to show by doing when you are teaching someone younger or less familiar with a particular task than you are, it doesn’t usually translate well to caregiving. Seniors may get angry or annoyed when you complete the task yourself instead of merely providing supervision or a helping hand while they accomplish what they can.
For example, it was probably hard enough for your mom to agree to let you help her pay bills and balance her checkbook after your dad died. Even after she relented, it wouldn’t be surprising if she tells you that she doesn’t understand why you keep insisting on helping her since she is perfectly capable of doing it herself.
The truth is that acknowledging you need help with the business of daily life is really, really hard for most seniors. One study published in the journal Research on Aging found that older parents struggle to balance their desire for autonomy with their desire to maintain close relationships with their adult children. Elderly parents are aware of the effects that asking for help can have on their family dynamics and are often torn when it comes to weighing the pros and cons of family caregiving. This study found that older parents “use a variety of strategies to deal with their ambivalent feelings, such as minimizing the help they receive, ignoring or resisting children’s attempts to control, withholding information from children to maintain clear boundaries, and seeking others as confidants.”
Providing assistance in a respectful and understanding manner from the beginning can help mitigate an older parent’s fears of feeling micromanaged and altering familial relationships. When the time comes that a senior needs help, they are also confronted with their own limitations. In most cases, these difficulties won’t “get better.” Your parent thinks of this event as the beginning of the end of their independence. In your attempt to make your parent’s life easier and safer, you’re likely speeding up their (real and perceived) loss of independence and might be harming your relationship in the process.
How to Help Aging Parents Without Being Overbearing
Following a few simple rules can make a world of difference in the way that you provide care. Above all else, remember to be aware of your actions, your words, your tone and how these things affect your elderly parents. Self-awareness is crucial for keeping even your best intentions in check, altering your approach when necessary and apologizing when you overstep your parents’ boundaries.
1. Let Aging Parents Take the Lead
If possible, do tasks alongside your parents instead of for them. While this approach might take longer than if you just did things yourself, you allow Mom and Dad to retain some of their independence by letting them take the lead. This can have beneficial effects on your parents’ self-esteem and keep their functional abilities sharp.
Some seniors resign from participating in everyday tasks and expect their family caregivers to take over. But, the old adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” applies here. Not only does this place a great deal of responsibility on caregivers but it often sets elders up for a swift decline in physical and mental functioning as well. Your goal should be to extend their independence, not encourage their dependence on you.
2. Enable Parents to Dictate How and When You Help
Instead of swooping in to tackle every unfinished task or resolve each problem, let your parents come to you. When they tell you what aspects of a particular activity they need your help with, try to limit your assistance to just those things, at least for now.
Sometimes parents have a hard time asking for assistance directly. Make sure you listen carefully when Mom or Dad shares their feelings and experiences with you. If they convey anxieties or frustrations surrounding a particular task, ask if they could use your help. Even if they do not accept, you will have made it known that you are interested in their well-being and willing to support them. Simply knowing that someone cares and listens to them is very important to many older adults. Feel free to repeat the offer as needed, but don’t force the issue unless their safety or livelihood is at stake.
Of course, if your Mom or Dad doesn’t have realistic expectations of what they can do for themselves, you will need to find a way of gently helping them see your perspective. Conveying your genuine concern for their well-being is often the best way to get your point across. If they won’t accept your help, then ask who they would accept help from. Sometimes seniors are more accepting of outside help from professional caregivers hired through a home care company. This way parents get the assistance they need without it impacting their relationships with their children. Regardless of what the solution is, make sure you work together to address the problem at hand.
3. Be Respectful
Ask permission before you just jump in. For example, when you take your parent to a doctor’s appointment, don’t just assume that they want you to come into the examination room with them. Instead, ask if they’d like you to be there the whole time, or if you should just come in toward the end of the visit to make sure YOUR questions are answered.
Remember that your parents are still your parents no matter how old they are or how their abilities change. They deserve respect and dignity. As frustrating as trying to care for aging parents can be, do your best to avoid being critical or demeaning. While many people characterize caring for an aging parent as a “role reversal,” it’s important to understand that seniors are not children who need “parenting.” Aging is tough and seniors usually don’t mean to be difficult on purpose. Keep in mind that the more you insist on controlling a particular situation, the more likely Mom and Dad are to resist your “help.”
4. Set Up Safety Nets
Regardless of how much your aging parents ask for or accept your help, do your best to set up a support system that keeps them safe and intrudes on their regular routine as little as possible. A medical alert system is a good example. Wearable pendants are relatively unobtrusive and provide peace of mind for both you and your parents should they have a medical emergency or an accident like a fall.
Senior care products can help extend your elderly parents’ independence as well. Look into assistive devices, such as medication organizers and mobility aids, that can make activities of daily living (ADLs) easier for them. Simple home modifications like grab bars can provide added safety and security as well.
An occupational therapist can help you and your parents explore all options for helping them live as independently and safely as possible. If your mom and dad have the right equipment, then they can see to their own needs with minimal hands-on help. Embracing new modes of doing things is often a difficult sell for seniors, but many are eager to adapt if it means they are not depending on someone else for assistance.
5. Prioritize Their Well-Being
If your parent is behaving recklessly, neglecting themselves or endangering their own safety, then stepping in is in their best interest and you may need to be more forceful about it. This scenario happens often when a parent is experiencing cognitive issues. Seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia may not be aware that their abilities have changed and continue trying to adhere to their normal routines even though it isn’t safe. Memory loss and poor judgement can make even the simplest daily activities risky or downright dangerous. At that point, it is your job to intervene despite their protests.
Make a distinction between safety and everything else. When your parent’s safety is on the line, you might just have to take charge by respectfully taking over. This isn’t about your preference that something be done a certain way or at a certain time. Let go of the things that do not matter and focus on the goal: keeping your parents, safe, healthy and happy.