Ask the Expert Q&A: Talking with aging parents
Q: My dad is a strong man, when I was 15 he taught me to drive; when I was 23 he walked me down the aisle. At age 30, I ran my first 5k race with him, and at age 40, we hiked the Blue Ridge Trail. This man has been my rock for 55 years and now at age 81 he has a failing memory and recent diagnosis of cancer. I am the only daughter in my family and know that I need to be strong for my dad, but how do I challenge some of the decisions he is making (or choosing not to make), without crossing that parent-child boundary?
A: What great memories you have with your dad! It is easy to see how a strong bond has formed over the years. Many of us hold our parents in very high regard and were taught to respect their authority, without question. So how do we transition from the role of child to adult child who now has to step up and make some tough decisions that often challenge that long established boundary? It many cases the role begins to reverse as a parent ages, the child is now the decision maker and responsible for providing primary care to the parent. It is not an easy transition to make, but truly is the way to honor and respect the parent you have loved and counted on for so many years. It will not always be easy, but if your dad is no longer able to make the decisions that are in his best interest (due to dementia or depression or other medical changes), it means that you may have to assert some authority and coordinate the support he now needs. If your dad has drafted legal documents naming you as his Power of Attorney and he has lost the capacity to do this for himself, then he has bestowed this most trusted responsibility to you and you can honor him by acting in his best interest.
Many adult children find that as this role reverses, the adjustment to the role of parenting mom or dad can be uncomfortable and frustrating. These feelings can lead to burnout and unhealthy dynamics, so it is important to establish a healthy role and ask for help when you need it. Getting support from others is imperative but one may not always know whom to turn to. Consider reaching out to family members, friends, professional counselors, caregiver support groups or clergy.
As this chapter of life begins, consider the following to help create a healthy approach to this new role with your dad:
1. Have open and honest conversations with him. Even with some memory loss, he can express his fears and emotions in the moment. You can express yours as well.
2. Remember to take care of yourself, and make time for other priorities in your life,
3. Identify who your back up will be when more help is needed.
4. Be patient and kind and remember that physical and mental changes in your dad are changing your dad’s ability to function as he might have in the past, it’s not intentional, and he is probably not aware of the impact of poor decisions.
5. Allow him to do the things he can for himself. While your instinct may be to jump in and protect him, do not “over-do” for him. Modify tasks and decisions to help him preserve as much independence as possible and safe.
All relationships change over time. The key is to acknowledge the changes and adapt. The best attitudes to have to help with this process are acceptance, honesty and faith in one another. If you start to feel strain about how you are relating to your dad, it may be wise to talk with others about it. Consult a professional who can help sort out where your boundaries should be. Lastly, remember that great strength your dad instilled in you and use those memories to provide you with guidance during this transition in life.
“A person’s life cycle is one great circle. We had caregivers in the beginning and many of us will need caregivers in the end. If we are lucky, the people whom we love most will be present to assist us in the completion of our life’s journey. Acceptance of this cycle can improve the quality of all our lives. It also completes the circle of love.” —Unknown Caregiver
Amy Natt, a certified senior advisor and geriatric care manager, can be reached at 910-692-0583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.