Helping Aging Parents: Taking Charge Without Taking Over

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As your parents age and need assistance with life's tasks – anything from balancing a checkbook to dealing with insurance claims – its hard to know how to take charge, without taking over. How do you help your parent, without making them feel as if they're losing their independence? How do you get the job done without condescending, or making them angry?

How many times have you found yourself "showing" someone how to do something by doing it for them? It's human nature. But while it might make sense to show by doing when you are "teaching" someone younger or less familiar with a particular topic than you are, it usually leads to anger when you do this when you are "assisting" someone with a task that he previously has been perfectly capable of handling himself.

It was probably hard enough for your mom to agree to let you help her pay her bills and balance her checkbook after your dad died. And even once she agreed, it wouldn't be surprising if she told you that she didn't know why you were insisting on helping her since she is perfectly capable of doing it herself.

The truth is that acknowledging that you need help with the business of life is really, really hard for most seniors. If they come to the point where they need your help, they are confronted with their own limitations. And those limitations won't "get better" in most cases. Deep down, your mom knows that this is the beginning of the end of her independence as she has come to know it.

So, how do you take charge without taking over?

Let Them Take the Lead

If possible, do the tasks alongside your mom rather than doing it for her. While this approach might take longer than doing it yourself, you allow mom to retain some self esteem by letting her take the lead.

Ask What They Need Help With

Let your dad tell you what aspects of a particular activity he needs your help with, and if possible, try to limit your assistance to just those things, at least for now. Of course, if your dad doesn't have a realistic picture of what he can do for himself, you will need to gently find a way to help him see your perspective.

Be Respectful

Ask permission before you just jump in. For example, when you take your parents to a doctor's appointment, don't just assume that they want you to come into the examining room with them. Instead, ask them if they'd like you to be there the whole time, or if perhaps you can just be called in toward the end of the visit to make sure that YOUR questions are answered.

Set Up Invisible Safety Nets

For example, if you come every Sunday and set up your mom's medications in a weekly medication management system, you can have some expectation that she will take the correct medications at the right time. But it wouldn't hurt to also have a way of checking that once or twice during the week. This might take the form of a medication management visit by a home care company or trusted friend or relative or perhaps daily medication reminder phone calls from you.

Ensure Their Safety

Make a distinction between safety and everything else. When your dad's safety is on the line, you might just have to take charge by taking over. On the other hand, if you'd just prefer that something be done a certain way or at a certain time, there might be an opportunity to loosen the grip a bit.

Your job as your parent's caregiver is to keep them safe, comfortable, and happy. As long as you keep that in perspective you should have no trouble taking charge without taking over.

Sheri Samotin brings more than 30 years of business and management experience to LifeBridge Solutions. She is a Certified National Guardian, Certified Daily Money Manager & Certified Professional Coach. She is the author of Facing the Finish: A Road Map for Aging Parents and Adult Children.

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9 Comments

I am dealing witht the difficult situation of being appointed conservator (after initiating involuntary conservator filing). My parent was being taken advantage of by another family member. I am learning a too common problem. I wish there was more information on how to work with parents with dementia when it reaches this point. It can happen within weeks of learning about the depth of the explolitation.
When I first came to live iwth my mom and be her caregiver both of us had more independence. She was still able to move about (although with growing difficulty) and I didn't have to have home care lined up if I was leaving the house for more than and hour or two. She could do her bills and write her checks; Her handwriting had changed and she'd gotten shakier due to PD but she was still in charge. Now fast fwd to today 3 yrs later. She can't go to the bathroom w/o help. She cannot stand without assistance at all and only for brief periods of time. She adds instead of subtracts or vice versa with the checkbook so she had to give that up. She was also accidently or misplacing bills or sending bills in minus the checks. Her hands have lost so much dexerity due to PD that she can't put her pills in her pill case like she used to. I HAD to take over but certainly wished it hadn't come to this but if I wonder why -- I guess I'll have to ask the great Almighty when and if I ever meet him. Mom vacillates btw being grateful to being hostile to me having to do everything. Trust me, if I won the big time lotto jackpot , I wouldn't BE doing everything. I love my mom but our relatiionship has changed so much and this caregiving has changed me. I don't even find myself that fascinating so to become involved in every aspect of another person's life is beyond me. But I'm doing -- for now.
Good article. Did most of these at the time I started caring for my parents. Had to learn via tough and go..what mom can and cannot do. So she does her laundry..writes her checks..takes care of herself in many ways. She loads dishwasher.. She takes care of breakfast for her and dad. All these things she is still able to do and has myeloid her to feel independent. Kudos ..