Too often, as parents age, adult children feel the best way to help and support them is to reverse roles and become their . . . parents.
But as a professional care manager with 40 years of experience helping adults in their Fragile Years and their families, I cringe when I hear adult children talk about how they feel like they’ve reversed roles with their parents who are now dependent on them. That attitude is a trap that can result in bitterness and resentment on both sides. Parents don’t like their children telling them what to do — no matter how fragile they might be.
There is a much healthier way to engage with the new family dynamic, and that is to view this as an opportunity to become your parent’s strongest advocate and supporter — a source of kindness, compassion, and understanding. I talk about this in my book, The Fragile Years.
You aren’t reversing roles. You are entering a new stage of your relationship. This isn’t a burden; it’s an opportunity to make your loved one’s final years as comfortable, peaceful, and secure as possible. You’re also preventing the stressful complications that arise when crises occur amid a lack of preparation. Consider this also as your time to demonstrate to your own family, especially your children and grandchildren, how you would hope to be treated in the later stages of your own life.
Here are the steps I have found make all the difference:
- Begin preparing yourself and your parents for the Fragile Years as they enter their seventies. That means laying the groundwork for conversations by introducing, little by little, topics such as priorities and values for happiness and well-being, and whether your parents have a living will or power of attorney. Over time, you can move toward setting tools up where they are not already in place and ensuring that choices align with your parents’ preferences and values.
- Discuss their preferences for the late stages of life and end-of-life while they are still mentally fit. These conversations can be uncomfortable conversations, but the alternative is to leave the door open for stressful crises and decisions that might be made in a context of doubt and disagreement. Consider these conversations an act of love. You will be very glad to have prepared for the fragile years ahead and all the challenges they bring.
- Gather critical information on their financial, medical, and legal affairs. Find out where your parents keep important documents and secure them all in a place or places where you can get to them. These include property titles and deeds, car titles, online passwords and pin numbers, loan papers, investment information, and monthly bills for household expenses and insurance. Make sure, too, to have contact information for your parent’s lawyers — especially those who have their wills on file — and their primary doctor. You’ll also want to have access to any stocks, mutual funds, IRAs, or other financial instruments. Some will ask for documentation from your parent’s doctors saying that the individual no longer has the mental capacity to handle their own affairs – so preparing in advance is crucial.
- Get to know the senior care offerings in your communities before there’s a need. Find out if your communities have assisted living, nursing homes, or rehab facilities, and learn about the depth of their services. Make sure that the staff’s qualifications are not only satisfactory but exceptional. No matter what type of care you opt for, the nurses need to be trustworthy, patient, and caring as well as possess an advanced medical certification that’s always up to current medical standards. Also, ask if they have long-term beds available – right now there is a chronic shortage of beds in nursing homes. Cultivating contacts at each local facility helps ensure that they’ll notify you when beds may be available. Keep it personal!
- If your parents are resistant to any help, search for a trusted advisor. Care managers are trained to provide help in these types of scenarios and to advocate for your parent’s care and safety, whether it’s provided by a hospital, a nursing home or an at-home caregiver. It is money well spent.
- Above all: make the most of the time you have remaining with your loved one. This is your opportunity to create even more meaningful memories and to let them know once again that they are loved and will be remembered.
Amy Cameron O’Rourke is a nationally-known pioneer and advocate for senior care in the U.S. She has been a professional care manager for more than 40 years, with 20 of those years at the helm of The Cameron Group (now Arosa), which she founded, as well as O’Rourke & Associates in Orlando, Florida. Amy is also the author of The Fragile Years.