Parents have important conversations with their young children. Work hard. Save your money. Do your homework. Don’t beat up your brother (or sister).
Years pass and roles change. Now the adult child might want to start up a conversation with his or her aging parents. Topics of that conversation could include who makes decisions if the parent is no longer competent, hiring help for activities they can no longer do alone or dealing with finances, medical care and other issues that come with age.
Housing, for example.
“Lots of people say I’m going to live in the house until I die,” said Julie Bach, an assistant professor at Dominican University and a gerontologist. “How do they navigate the stairs? Do they have money for repairs? If they have to live with one of the kids, who do they want to live with and who not? How do they feel about paying people to come into the house (and assist)?”
Ruth Folkening knows about that firsthand. Folkening is a caregiver specialist at Aging Care Connections, a social service agency finances by the state that assists seniors in Leyden, Proviso and Norwood Park townships.
Folkening’s parents lived in a two-story home with a detached garage. As they aged, it became more difficult for them to maneuver around. Folkening’s sister recognized that and spoke to them about moving to a more manageable house.
“They moved to a ranch-type townhouse with attached garage,” Folkening said. “This was very upsetting for my parents, who were attached to their home. Later, their perspective was this was the best thing.”
An alternative to moving might be hiring someone to assist the parents with medical issues or cleaning. The challenge might be what is the right amount of assistance.
“What research has shown, in an attempt to help older people, we often take away what they can do,” Bach said. “If mom can still clean and we think ‘you’re 78, mom shouldn’t have to clean’ . . . if it’s something they can do and are proud of, we shouldn’t take it away.”
“Many people of this generation are very private, very frugal and feel they don’t have the funds for people to come in and do things they could do for themselves,” Folkening said. “We know people are happiest when they can remain in their homes. What we try to tell people is we want to support you remaining in the community.”
Another topic to discuss is what’s called “power of attorney.” That means authorizing someone else to make decisions for the aging parent in legal or financial or other specified matters.
There are two different types seniors should consider — property and health care.
“Its hard when (parents) are in the hospital and they start asking questions, “ Bach said. “When the doctor asks, it’s easier to know their wishes, not to guess.”
Folkening said it is designating a decision-maker for future events.
“People who have not made a decision when they’re competent, we’ve had to go and apply for guardianship of these individuals,” she said. “If they come to a point where they are no longer capable, most people want a trusted individual to who knows what their wishes are to make their decisions for them.”
As a starting point, Bach suggests the getting the 5 Wishes document from www.AgingWithDignity.org, which costs $5.
The document is legal in Illinois when signed, Bach said. It includes such topics as who should make care decisions for the parent if they can’t, the type of medical treatment the parent wants, how comfortable they want to be (i.e. medicine to keep unconscious), what they want loved ones to know, and so forth
Having a conversation on these topics can be tricky for both the adult children and the aging parents. For example, what should adult children do if their parent is dying or sick.
“Resistance comes from both sides,” Bach said. “Both sides can be putting off these important discussions. Parts are very unsettling.”
Sometimes the adult children don’t want to have the conversation.
“While it often includes the idea that (parents) are going to die, adult children don’t want to talk about it,” Bach said.
“Older adults have been in the parent role,” Folkening said. “They have called the shots. Its difficult, at this time of life when they are losing capabilities, they want to hang on for dear life. They are trying to stay in control despite a loss of health and a loss of strength.”
“Its not just what they talk about but how they approach it,” Bach said. “Mom, dad, you should do this versus mom, dad, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.”
Sometimes aging parents don’t accurately perceive their situation, thinking they are independent and not realizing how they have started to rely on others for simple chores.
Sometimes it might help for an adult child to bring in someone respected by the parents. A doctor, attorney or religious leader.
“Its important for the adult child to realize they (might) still be treated as a child by their parent,” Folkening said. “They might not be the most successful person to say stop driving or more.”
Folkening suggests such a conversation should start when the adult child is about 40 and the parents are about 70.
She also suggests starting slow.
“You might make a suggestion and wait for the parents to comment or bring it up later,” Folkening said.
The exception is if the parent’s situation is not safe. Their home is a fire hazard or they been in car accidents.
“We have to be more proactive,” Folkening said. “It might require getting a physician or attorney involved.”