As parents age, their needs and preferences change, from simple things like TV shows to life-altering needs for new surroundings. When a loved one has lived in his or her home or neighborhood for decades, or has lived alone without help for most of his or her life, facing a major change can be frightening and even insulting. It can be seen as the last step to eternity, as being discarded, or the person may feel useless, especially after a lifetime of working and raising children. It may feel like the end of freedom or a chance for the family to manipulate their “doddering fool” parent.
Needless to say, under any of the above scenarios, conflicts can threaten relationships between aging parents and their adult children, just at the time when understanding and support are needed most. Bad feelings, such as resentment and fear, can undermine any chance of working together. Parents being parented is a difficult transition to make.
Going to court to force the issue would probably be the death knell of a relationship. Alternately, there are ways to ease tensions when conflict about a parent’s care arises. Communication, as in all relationships, is the key to preserving peace.
Two things to remember are 1) Keeping the relationship intact is more important than winning the argument, and 2) The parent must believe that any decision is actually his or her decision, not something forced upon them. The loved one needs to have confidence that you are listening to him or her, taking his or her thoughts seriously, and remaining by their side no matter what. Sometimes, this does boil down to letting them “win” in a difficult situation.
One recalls an elderly parent who had to spend time in a nursing home to recover from a back operation. She had a bruise on her leg that she obsessed over, blaming the staff for the bruise and refusing to leave the home on her discharge date. She was not concerned about the fact that Medicare would no longer pay for the stay, or that the bruise was insignificant. She didn’t care that this was humiliating and harming the family — she demanded justice. During a family call with a representative of the facility, this rep realized that the patient just needed to “win.” So, they admitted she had a bruise, had a doctor examine it and pronounce it healed, and the next moment, her bags were packed and all was well. It took special insight to make the patient believe someone was on her side, in order to defuse the situation.
Here are some considerations that can help maintain good relationships during tough times.
Ask the loved one for their opinions and suggestions. Listen for their priorities and values. Give them options and consequences. “How do you think we should solve this problem?” “What would happen if . . . ?”
Be patient. Don’t rush them. Older folks, especially those with mental difficulties, need time to adjust to new circumstances. Also, if someone is tired or sick or angry, and the porcupine quills come out, put off the discussion until things are calmer.
Help them see the positive side of any changes. Perhaps moving to a new home would allow the family to spend more time together. In-home care would add fun and companionship to the day when family cannot be there, and add the chance to make a new friend. Help them believe that their change would be good for the family they love as well.
Let them know they are helping you by letting you help them. It’s a good bargain.
Let Mom and Dad know you are on their side. You can kindly set limits — “I do have to work and take care of my kids.” — but let them decide how they want their later years to play out, and that they may have to adjust their priorities and expectations, but you will support them.
Be ready for change. Older folks can become more vulnerable, especially after a great loss, and are prone to making unwise choices. Loneliness can become so intense that they are susceptible to unacceptable relationships. Sometimes, as we age, we become “someone different,” and any attempt to turn back the clock is futile.
Finally, you have to let go of unreasonable expectations. Don’t cast your parents aside when they don’t act or react the way you want. Expect the unexpected, go with the flow, and make their time as meaningful and happy as can be . . . expected.
Bottom line: Young or old, people want to feel accepted and emotionally connected, especially if they know they are not “up to par.” That’s what parents do, even when they are parenting their parents.
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