Health & Medicine

When dealing with elderly parents

I recently met up with a woman I’ve known for many years. She appeared tired, as if she’d had lots of stress. “I just returned from the Midwest where I’ve been helping my parents,” she explained. “Dad died a few weeks ago and Mom needs to be moved. I was there for six weeks. I’ll have to go back again soon.”

This woman certainly isn’t alone. Over 13 million baby boomers are providing care for their sick or elderly parents. And the number is expected to rise. Not only are the elderly living longer but they are also surviving conditions that leave them in a debilitated state longer than ever before.

Most boomers are shouldering this responsibility without complaint. My own personal sentiment and my observation of others is that we feel privileged to be able to assist our aging folks. One study from the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology found that the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s are more committed to caring for aging parents than their own parents were.

But this willingness comes at a cost. Baby boomers themselves are not young. Many are entering retirement or have set aside plans as recent empty nesters to take on this new role. And, as a group, their health is less than stellar. Americans in their 50s report poorer health, more pain and more trouble completing everyday tasks than their parents reported at the same age in years past.

Caretaking is also frustrating. A mother with dementia can be irrational and angry when her adult children visit. A father who is recently widowed might refuse to have a housekeeper clean his home but expect his daughter to stop by three times a week to buy groceries and help with chores.

Caregivers frequently feel overwhelmed by their duties. Yes, they want to be available to their folks. But chances are they have jobs and families of their own. Caring for parents may require travel and extended visits. Health problems necessitate hours at doctors’ offices, administering medications, or researching treatment options online.

Some receive minimal appreciation. Elderly parents can be unhappy, depressed or demented and sometimes make thoughtless, hurtful comments to those trying to help.

Guilt is likely to be added to the emotional equation. Adult children want to make things better for their folks, yet feel badly when they can’t fix all the problems. They may question, “Am I doing enough?” or feel angst because they choose to go to Disneyland with the grandkids one weekend instead of staying home with Mom.

It’s not unusual for siblings to experience conflict and resentment as a result of their caretaking responsibilities. One sibling may assume the lion’s share of the duties while a sibling from out of state pops in for visits once or twice a year. Brothers and sisters may even be critical of the custodial sibling’s actions. They might second guess a medical decision or disagree with the plan to put their father in assisted living.

Parents compound the problem by telling different stories to different children. A woman may complain and cry when her daughter asks how she’s doing, yet tell her son, “I’m doing great. No need to worry,” when he calls later that same week.

As with so many family issues, there is no easy answer. Each unit must tend to its unique circumstances and address needs as they arise. Hopefully, members will work together to provide comfort and care for their elderly parents, meanwhile modeling values for the next generation to follow.

Caregiving while caring for yourself

Are you caring for an elderly family member? Consider these strategies to minimize stress and maximize effectiveness:

• Accept your situation. It’s difficult to deal with a parent who has Alzheimer’s or who is in failing health. Still, you can’t pretend it’s not happening. Recognize this final stage of your parents’ lives and assist them however you can.

• Be proactive. Don’t wait for Mom to fall in the bathtub or for Dad to lose all his money to a telephone scam. Take appropriate steps now to avert disasters before they happen.

• Set limits. You don’t have to do everything your parents want you to do. It’s OK to say no to unreasonable requests. Use a kind yet firm tone to express your love along with your backbone. • Do your fair share. If you live out of the area, call your parents and caretaking siblings regularly. Ask how they are doing and inquire how you can help. Visit as often as possible. Make yourself part of the team.

• Be able to take charge when necessary. You want your parents to be as independent as possible. But if you determine that they are unable to adequately manage their food or shelter, or that they pose a safety threat to themselves or others around them, it’s time to take swift measures to ensure sufficient care.

• Remember your own family. Caring for your parents is important. Others may need your help, too. Spouses and minor-age children remain top priority as you balance important family duties.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit