Recently I received a call from Michelle, an exasperated adult daughter asking if there was any legal way to get her elderly father to stop verbally abusing her and to accept a caregiver so she could move out of his house. She had moved in to help him after her mom passed, but was now trapped as he refused to move to assisted living or accept live-in help.
Michelle started to cry, saying she had just called an agency where a man "laughed at me," saying her father could do whatever he wished in his own home short of physically abusing her. Since I have survived the same situation with my own father, I knew the misery she was going through.
It reminded me of a call I received from another adult child, Paul, begging for my advice on the same situation. He was at the hospital with his parents. His elderly father had accidentally burned the house down. He'd tried for years to convince them to move to assisted living or accept a caregiver, and a couple times even had everything lined up, but they'd cancel at the last minute. I felt so bad for him and suggested it might be best to wait until his parents recovered from the smoke inhalation before trying again. But Paul (a successful 60-year old businessman) burst into tears with, "I can't wait! My father already hired the contractor to rebuild the house. Jacqueline, my parents are 90 and 92!"
I wish I had the iron-clad solution to this problem to help so many people. Since our civil rights are (fortunately) very strong in the United States, unless an individual is legally proven incompetent (a difficult process, but especially hard at the beginning stages of dementia), they cannot be forced to do/not do anything against their will – unless, of course, it's something illegal.
The best way to increase the odds of a parent accepting help later in life is by starting end-of-life conversations early, and long before health and rational thinking start to deteriorate. When a parent's "Third Act" wishes have been discussed openly for years (and documented with living wills, trusts, durable powers of attorney for Health and Financial, etc.), when the time comes, the transition is less traumatic.
The problem is that so many people never get up the nerve to broach such a sensitive subject, or every time they try, the parent gets mad, goes into denial, makes silly "senior moment" jokes, and nothing ever gets resolved. If this sounds like your situation and you've been procrastinating and avoiding "The Conversation," realize that when your parent does reach the crisis point and you have to step in, you have a lot of "convincing time" ahead of you.
Will Your Elderly Parents Be Safe Living Alone?
Take a moment and remember when you were the child. Wouldn't your parent have done everything in their power to keep you safe, no matter how much you protested? Now, as hard as it is, you have to accept the role reversal and be the responsible "parent" who persists in making sure your parent is safe. And yes, even for those who have not been great parents, do the right thing and plan for good karma!
When you know in your heart that your parent cannot remain safely in their home any longer, don't let demands and pleas cloud your better judgment. You know what they need, so don't end up a sad statistic by waiting for the heart-breaking middle-of-the-night crisis call about a broken hip, medicine overdose, stroke, or horrific car accident where they have been hurt or even killed, or some poor innocent family has been--and a lawsuit is certain.
Reach for Support ASAP
Be sure to ask all the relatives, friends, clergy, healthcare professionals/ doctors to back up your specific plans by calling or coming in-person to see your parent to add words of encouragement and support. You might even ask everyone to visit at the same time to help with an intervention of sorts, where hopefully your parent finally understands the seriousness of the situation and "sees the light."
Finally, realize that nearly everyone who has ever lived since the beginning of time, who has been lucky enough to have their elders reach old age, has experienced the pain of watching their once-competent parents decline, need help, and pass away. We all intellectually know it is a sad part of life, but even with all that's been written and with all we have seen, there's nothing that prepares us for the sorrow when it is our loved one. Take advice from all who have gone before you--don't even consider going through it alone.