How to Care for an Aging Parent

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My mother drove her car through the back wall of her garage on Tuesday. Mom is widowed, lives alone, and struggles with mental illness. In the past few years, she’s become less and less functional, to the point where even the ordinary demands of daily life have become too much for her. Two weeks ago, my brothers and I talked about taking away her car keys. After Tuesday’s incident, we finally did.

My family has been wrestling with Mom’s condition for years. We’ve made some mistakes, but we’ve also done some things right. Along the way, we’ve gained some wisdom about caring for an aging parent.

  • Prepare in advance. Most of the time, the problems associated with aging don’t come on all at once. Your mother or father will gradually lose the ability to function. When this starts to happen, take action. Don’t wait until the last minute. Encourage your parents to have their wills drafted. Get a power of attorney so that you can make decisions, if needed. Create a master document with a list of important accounts, account numbers, and passwords. It only takes a little work to gather these things when your parents are healthy, and they can save a lot of headache later on.
  • Define roles and share the load. It’s easy for one person to become resentful if she thinks she’s doing all of the work. At the same time, not everyone can (or should) help in the same way. My youngest brother has a terrific bedside manner, and did a great job of organizing Mom’s many medications and setting up a system to help her remember to take them. My other brother does a good job of making sure the routine chores are taken care of. I’m good at dealing with the Big Picture: talking with doctors and taking care of legal stuff. If your family works together to draw on each person’s strengths, it’s easier to help your aging parent.
  • Advocate loudly. Nobody cares more about your family’s situation than you do. Sure, there’ll be some doctors and social workers and other folks who are helpful, but ultimately you’re just a part of their job. If you need something, ask for it. If something seems wrong, speak up. Don’t be a jerk, but be assertive. If you don’t push for what your family needs, you’re probably not going to get it.
  • Dig deep for resources. No matter what your situation, there are resources to help. But you may have to spend hours — or days — looking until you find the help you need. Call city, county, and state agencies. Check their websites. Even if you don’t want (or don’t qualify for) government help, these places can point you to private parties that can help.

Most of all, communicate. It can be tough to care for an aging parent. Suddenly, the traditional family roles — the ones you’ve been following for decades — are reversed. In many ways, you become your parent’s parent. This change can wreak havoc on family dynamics, especially if you and your siblings don’t maintain constant, clear communication.

(PHOTOS: My Aging Father’s Decline: A Son’s Photo Journal)

This isn’t my mother’s first mental health crisis. It’s her fourth (or fifth). Each time, my family scrambles to help her and then hopes things will improve. We remember Mom the way she used to be, and want her to be that woman again. Hope is good — but it doesn’t solve anything. And, in our case, that hope has proven to be unfounded. Mom’s situation just keeps getting worse. It’s no longer just a matter of eating right and paying the bills; now she’s driving cars through walls.

This time, the family is more pragmatic. We’re setting aside hope and dealing with reality. There are a lot of unknowns ahead, and the entire process scares us. How do we get her doctors to recognize the severity of the crisis? After the immediate problems have passed, do we hire somebody to live with Mom? Do we pay to move her to a residential care facility? And where do we find the money to give her the help she needs?

We don’t have all the answers, and we’re sure to make a few more mistakes. But it’s comforting to know that we’re working together, and that in the end, our goal is to do what’s best for Mom.

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