How to Care For Aging Parents With Care and Patience
There’s typically a moment for every midlife couple when you “suddenly” realize your parents are elderly. If this hasn’t happened to you and your spouse yet, it sounds ridiculous. After all, everyone is aging—all the time. But just as noticing your 17 year old nephew is “suddenly” six feet tall and growing a beard, the reality of seeing your parents as “elderly” can be a shock. And what makes this even more difficult is it’s likely a shock to them, too!
If you’re lucky, the moment will dawn slowly. Perhaps your aging parents leave from a gathering early to get home before dark or they cancel dinner invitations at the last minute because it’s raining. Maybe you’ve noticed their house isn’t as tidy as usual or their personal grooming isn’t up to their typical standards. These small changes can be clues that more difficult decisions are waiting not too far around the bend.
The more challenging and shocking path often happens after a moment of crisis. One of your parents might trip and fall doing a daily chore, may have a fender bender because someone “was driving like a maniac,” or suddenly require a hospital stay and rehabilitation care for an illness that started as a simple cold.
Whether you and your spouse are simply educating yourselves now for what’s to come, or you’re in the middle of this challenging process, here are five tips to help you when caring for elderly parents.
1. Don’t panic.
Even if this realization happened due to a crisis, do your best not to panic. It goes without saying, but we don’t want to not say it—this is a time for prayer. As you enter the strange new world of eldercare, you and your spouse are going to need faith, hope, and the love of family and friends to pray with you along the way. Don’t try to walk this road alone.
Becoming an advocate for your aging parents takes time to grasp. Like starting a new job, there’s a steep learning curve—eldercare has its own language and rules. Ask a lot of questions and gather as much information as you can about your parents’ current circumstances.
Try to bring your spouse into the conversations early and often. It’s important to be honest with them about the fears and stresses that come with this new role as the child of elderly parents. You may feel obligated or compelled to become a caregiver or frightened about the responsibilities of becoming your parents’ advocate. Praying with your spouse and seeking their perspective will give you tools to ease the worry and handle the current situation all while setting the groundwork for how you can work together as a team going forward.
2. Go slow.
The world of aging parents is slow. They move and think more slowly. It’s actually a great gift of old age. No longer bound by the schedules and daily concerns of work and family, elderly parents have more time to savor the moment. You may notice them truly enjoying looking out the window or spending an hour on a crossword. Unfortunately, this gift can feel like a huge liability when you’re adding the “project” and title of caregiver or advocate to your own likely overloaded schedule.
It’s important, though, to guard against thinking of your aging parents as a project. It’s a new stage of life for all of you, and you will do everyone a favor if you remember to slow down.
- Before you walk into their house, say a prayer and take a few slow, deep breaths to mentally prepare to speak and move at a slower pace.
- Build an extra hour into your schedule for every big conversation, doctor’s appointment, or social engagement with your parents.
- Be prepared to exercise patience if your parents are running behind schedule or want to go home early.
- Be prayerful and gentle when discussing change. Your parents will often be making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. This is worthy of time and patience.
As a caregiver or advocate, you will be inundated with possibilities and information. Going slow and taking time to talk through the situations with your spouse will clarify how the different options may affect your lives and the lives of your own family.
3. Get the facts.
Now’s the time for a thorough checkup to make sure your parents have a health care practitioner who has the time, patience, and expertise to work with them.
As bodies age, small infections and gradual changes in muscle capability can quickly create much larger, more difficult problems. Encouraging your parents to have a full checkup and getting a clear picture of their physical and mental health at this moment in time creates what you and their health care practitioner refer to as a baseline, giving everyone a measuring tool to notice any changes or future decline.
Gaining a clear understanding of their current abilities also helps you all take proactive measures to create the best quality of life possible. Be careful not to jump into the land of “what’s next” too quickly. Instead, focus on what this means now. A parent running over a curb may not mean it’s necessary to “take away” their keys and an illness might not mean it’s time for full-time care. Do your best to focus on the situation at hand with the understanding that you have entered a new phase of life for both you and your elderly parents.
4. Start studying.
The reality is everyone comes into the world of eldercare unprepared. It can feel like, suddenly, you’re supposed to know every answer to life-and-death questions. Rest assured, this season isn’t a pop quiz. The first realization that you have elderly parents is just a wake-up call and reminder that it’s time to study.
Spend some time reading books, watching videos, and reaching out to trusted friends who have already started down this path. Surround yourself with people who will pray for you and offer wise counsel. Research will give you tools and confidence for the conversations and situations ahead. A quick Google search can get you started with research for specific problems and resources like The National Institute on Aging, AARP, Family Caregiver Alliance, and The Alzheimer’s Association are trustworthy outlets for caregivers, advocates, and family members.
5. Remember this season is NOT a role reversal.
You are not your parent’s parent. This will be one of the most difficult concepts to keep top of mind as your aging parents decline.
Once you arrive at the moment your parents need additional help, or even more harrowing, an intervention to keep them safe, it can feel as though you’re now in charge. After all, you’ll likely need to lead very difficult conversations that will limit your parents’ world. Over time, you may become their primary contact person, personal caretaker, or responsible party for making tough decisions on their behalf. You may even need to become their guardian. But even then, you are not their parent.
The greatest gift you can give your parents and yourself is to remember that they are adults. They are not regressing; they are aging. They have lived a full life with all the difficulties and challenges that come with that task.
You are a friend, a counselor, an advocate, and an ombudsman. But you are not their parent. It’s an opportunity for you to show respect and share the privilege of your time.
If all this is starting to sound like a lot of work—you’re right. But happily, this new position will build on skills you already have. You and your spouse are going to expand your abilities for patience and kindness. Each new situation will give you the opportunity to lean in and grow your relationship with God. You will probably learn several new eldercare languages, one for your parents and one for the medical and extended care communities. You may find you’re suddenly more eager to prepare for your own aging—things like cleaning out a garage, taking better care of yourself physically and mentally, and walking through some decisions about your own long-term care with your adult kids.
Having elderly parents gives you the chance to value the moments you have right now. Each day is an opportunity to learn something new from the people who have known you all your life. Or maybe you could just grab a cup of coffee and enjoy gazing out the window.