“Just when you think life may be getting easier because your children are almost grown, you have to start taking care of your aging parents.” –Cathy W.
Cathy W. was the first person who responded to my request for tips on elder care. Her words were the first drops in what became a downpour of wisdom and practicality.
So many of us are currently in this life stage—caring for aging parents.
Almost every day I hear someone mention this topic. It seems only yesterday that we were swapping colic-coping methods, survival techniques for the terrible twos (and threes), and picky eater solutions. Now days, the cause for our sleepless nights springs from a different generation, that of our parents.
As I sorted through suggestions on the subject, I recognized three distinct phases of the process: Before, During, and Later. Let’s talk first about Before. The Before period is when your parents are fully alert, mobile, and able to take care of themselves.
Begin a dialogue about “one day.” Like, now.
“First let me say, have conversations with your parents when they are in their 50s and 60s about how they want to spend their ‘later years.’” –Cathy W.
More than a decade ago, not long after our father died, my oldest brother took our mom on a tour of the senior-living community near her house. In subsequent years, from time to time, she’d mentioned the place. “One day I’d like to live there.” One day. But not now.
I’m not sure if my brother knew that what he’d done was brilliant, but it was. By taking Mom to the senior-living community, he made the unknown, known.
Because she had seen the facility “with her own eyes,” she knew what to expect. The building was beautifully decorated and the staff, very friendly. Mom could picture herself living comfortably in that place.
Every now and then, over the years, we’d mention the place. “When you no longer want to live on your own, Mom, you can move to that place we visited.” Mom would nod and smile. “Not yet.”
In the meantime, while you wait for “Not Yet,” to change to “It’s time,” continue preparations for “One Day.”
Urge your folks, gently of course, to get their affairs in order.
Having helped my mother with these important things, here’s a to-do list to guide you:
- Last Will and Testament
- Durable Power of Attorney
- Advanced Health Care Directive: made up of a “Living Will” and “Health-Care Power of Attorney”
My friend Juliana R., an occupational therapist, texted many useful tips on this topic. Tragically, in 2016, Juliana unexpectedly lost, not a parent, but her only sister. Since her sister was only 41 years old, she hadn’t gotten around to “getting her affairs in order.” the complications of managing the estate made an already painful time even more wrenching.
Without vital information from a loved one, executing their estate is exceedingly painful and stressful.
To prepare friends and family, and keep them from guessing what their loved one would want done after their passing, Juliana recommends addressing these items:
- Where is the paperwork outlining your loved one’s wishes?
- What are the user names and passwords on their important accounts: banking, email, even Facebook (so the account can be deactivated if the family so decides)?
- What would they wish be done with their personal effects (clothing, furniture, mementos, etc.)? Is there someone specific the various items should be donated to?
- What are their preferences regarding their body after passing: burial, cremation, donation to science? And have they prepaid for any of these services?
- Have they made arrangements for their pets? One of my brothers sent me a detailed letter outlining his wishes regarding his pups, should he pass.
“It can give a parent peace that things ‘will be done the right way.’” –Juliana R.
Have your parents add a Plan B person to their bank accounts and investments.
No one wants anything to happen to anybody. But what if it does? Juliana’s sister died unexpectedly of a blood clot. My mother-in-law passed without warning due to a catastrophic brain bleed.
In other words, expect the unexpected.
Hopefully your parents will appoint someone trustworthy to have access to their accounts. Otherwise, things can get chaotic.
My father had investments all over the place. In his name only. Even though he passed more than a decade ago, we are still finding a little bit of money here and a small investment there.
Most of these companies refuse to relinquish the original document (or in some cases, a check) without an official death certificate. More than once I’ve had to drive to the courthouse of the county where my father died to procure additional official (with a raised seal) copies of his death certificate. Thankfully, because Dad was a veteran, I got a good deal on them. Official death certificates are seldom free.
“Let your parents be as independent as they can be.” –Jill D.
“They are losing enough without us taking more away from them before it’s needed,” she added.
With that said, eventually the day will come when your parents need help, a little or a lot, from you and your siblings.
In this area, I personally needed assistance to figure out what I should be doing for my mom. Because of my mother’s circumstance, which included psychiatric issues (and bullying, Tony Bear would add), I purchased the book Boundaries (affiliate link) by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I highly recommend the book for everyone.
Using Biblical principles, Cloud and Townsend delineate what you should and shouldn’t do for others. I found their explanation of “load vs. burden,” to be extremely helpful. This blog post does a great job of explaining this concept.
If you try to be all things to all people, you will crash.
After my mother fell a few years back and could not care for herself, I packed a bag, moved in with her temporarily, and did everything for her. Every single thing. And once she got better, she wanted me to keep doing every single thing for her.
I thought, “Maybe she’s right. Maybe I should handle everything for her.” But then I crashed. That’s when I read Boundaries, by the way. That’s also when Tony-Bear had to intervene on my behalf. You can read that story here.
Enable your parents to continue to enjoy life for as long as possible.
Once my mother and I fell into a healthy helper-helpee rhythm, I tried to make sure she continued to enjoy her hobbies. Because Mom loves to read books, I keep her to-be-read pile stocked.
Tony Bear helped with this too. When his mother passed away, he gave my mom a box of his mother’s books. Mom has loved each one. “Josephine and I have the exact same taste in books!”
Since my mother also loves doing crossword puzzles, I make sure she always has a couple of puzzle books.
Tony’s mother loved puzzles too, jigsaw puzzles. To keep her happy, Tony and his sisters always made sure she had plenty. And she had a huge crush on John Wayne. Imagine her delight when someone gave her a John Wayne jigsaw puzzle. Such joy!
Memorize these 3 things: Community, Hope, Purpose
Last summer, an acquaintance with an interest in aging shared an important fact with me. I told her how my mother used to ask to be taken to the emergency room or an urgent care clinic. A lot. When nothing was wrong with her.
“That’s because she’s searching for community, hope, and purpose. When those needs aren’t being met, the elderly often turn to the medical community.” Who knew?
Community is important because of what happens if you don’t have it. Without community, people are lonely. Among other things, loneliness can increase your chance of depression, cognitive decline, even dying. You can read more on this subject here.
More than once recently, my mother has said, “I am not the same person I used to be.” I agree. Mom is now much happier.
What changed? Every afternoon for the past year, Mom has played cards with a group of ladies on her floor. The last time we visited her, she actually asked us to leave early so she wouldn’t miss cards. “We’re learning Canasta. I can’t miss a lesson.”
I absolutely want my mother to experience hope. And perhaps she is. Every Sunday, a local pastor conducts a service in Mom’s building. She enjoys this time very much. Probably because of the community, but also because of the peace and comfort that can be found in faith practices. More on that topic here.
I’m hoping Mom can also find purpose. I told her about a friend who knits hats for newborns and Mom said she’d love to do that. “Can you find me a pattern?”
Often helping others can give you a sense of purpose. But the purpose doesn’t have to be a person.
Purpose can be found in pets.
Our family has a nickname for Mom’s cat, Rosie. We call her the “psycho cat.” Rosie loves Mom and only Mom. Sometimes she’ll let Junior-Man scratch her chin for 43 seconds, but then the hissing starts. And her back arches. Then she puffs to double her size.
You won’t find me complaining about Mom and Rosie’s mutual adoration society. I think it’s awesome that they live for each other. Pet ownership has all kinds of benefits for the elderly.
Of course, owning a pet is only a good idea if your parent is up for the responsibility. If they’re not, consider a houseplant or two. Even plants can provide health benefits for your loved one. More on that here.
“While your parents are healthy and mobile, encourage them to down-size their possessions.” –Cathy W.
I agree, Cathy! Because Tony Bear and I helped my mother move not once, but twice. First, we moved her out of her home and into a cute apartment on the independent-living side of her senior-community. A year later, we moved her to a smaller, but still cute, apartment on the assisted-living side of her building.
Of course, the second move was easier. She’d already parted with a lot of belongings by then. But still, moving is always a lot of work.
There’s another benefit of downsizing while your parents are fully cognizant.
They can designate who gets what personal mementos. Who will get your mother’s wedding ring? Your father’s? Who should receive the dining room set that’s been in your family for three generations? Who should get their car?
I could keep going, but instead, I’m going to save the rest of my tips for next week.
“And it is our turn to be grown up…whether we want to or not. We. Are. The. Adults.” –Susan Jennings Lantz*
Read Susan’s personal elder care story here. It is both harrowing and hilarious (in a Fargo–aka dark comedy–kind of way.)
To read the second post in this series, click here.
To read the third post in this series, click here.