As they age, our parents might need more help. But you might not know exactly how to lend a hand or even where to start. Plus, what do you do if your parents balk at your attempts to assist them?
While every situation is unique, Christina Steinorth, MFT, a psychotherapist and author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships, offered her suggestions for helping aging parents.
1. Empathize with your parents.
Sometimes you might be taken aback by your parents’ frustration, moody behavior or neediness. In fact, on some days, they might be downright unpleasant to be around. But it’s important to be empathetic and understand where they’re coming from. According to Steinorth, “Aging is a series of losses — loss of employment, health and energy, friends, mobility, and independence.” Consider how you’d feel if you were in their situation, she said.
2. Call them regularly.
When Steinorth was researching her master’s thesis, the number one thing aging parents wanted from their kids was simply to hear from them. She suggested setting a reminder on your phone to check in with your parents and see how they’re doing.
3. Get other family involved.
When helping your parents, don’t take on all the responsibility yourself, unless you have to, Steinorth said. For instance, she knows of one family who emails updates to each other any time a sibling visits their parents. This not only provides information on their parents’ health and current situation, but it also makes it easier to coordinate visits and share responsibilities, she said.
Communication among family members also is key when parents need financial help. “Sometimes siblings will help offset expenses by giving your parents a little bit of money every month — they just need to know what the financial need is in order to be able to make the decision to help,” Steinorth said. (She also suggested seeing a financial advisor who specializes in elder care issues to discuss your options.)
4. Seek out potential problems.
Walk around your parents’ home, and scrutinize the surroundings for any necessary repairs or changes. For instance, look out for uneven flooring, handrails and well-lit hallways and stairs, she said. Also, check if essential items are within reach and emergency contact information is next to the phone. If something major requires repair, find out if your state offers low-interest loans to seniors, Steinorth added. She suggested visiting this website for more information.
5. Advocate for them.
If your parent has an illness, make sure both of you have a good grasp of what that means and what treatment entails. For instance, know the medications they’re taking and when they’re supposed to be taken. If you’re accompanying them to appointments, ask questions, and take notes, she said.
6. Encourage them to be active.
Many aging parents tend to be isolated, because they stop driving, get tired easily or have hearing or vision loss, Steinorth said. She stressed the importance of helping parents stay both socially and physically active.
“Talk to them about their friends, senior groups, and church or synagogue members. Find out what parks, the library, museums, nearby universities, and community centers offer in the way of organized activities.”
Physical activity is key for improving mood, endurance, balance and strength and delaying cognitive decline, she said. For instance, aging parents can walk, or participate in exercise programs for seniors.
7. Help them downsize without being bossy.
When helping your parents downsize, don’t tell them what they should and shouldn’t keep or toss anything unless you have their permission, she said. “Realize that your parents have many memories and treasure things that remind them of relatives and happy events — these are specific to the individual and just because you don’t see the value in certain items, doesn’t mean your parent shares your view.”
8. Help them create a memory book.
It’s common for seniors to experience short-term memory problems, according to Steinorth. Reminiscing might help. She suggested creating a scrapbook for your parents, filled with photos and names of the people, places and pets from their past. If you have time, work on the scrapbook together, she added.
What To Do When Parents Don’t Want Help
It’s not uncommon for parents to refuse their kids’ help. Try to have this conversation before your parents need immediate assistance, Steinorth said. If they’re not open to your help right now, over time, they might change their minds, she said.
Another approach is to ask others to intervene. For instance, you might ask your siblings, close relatives or even their doctor to talk to your parents, she said. “Sometimes hearing the need for additional help from an outside source can help your parents really hear what is being said and therefore may also make them more open to your help.”
Finally, if your parents are a danger to themselves or others and still refuse your help, contact the department of social services to step in, Steinorth said. Be prepared for your parents to be upset with you. But their anger will probably dissipate, she said, because they’ll be less emotional and understand you had their best interests and safety in mind (and in your heart).