The demographics are clear and inevitable. The number of senior citizens is predicted to double to 70 million by 2030. As a result, coping with aging parents will become a concern for many adult children. That first phone call from a concerned relative or neighbor will bring a growing number of people face to face with a parent's changing condition and a sense of responsibility for their welfare.
No matter the circumstances, helping an aging parent and learning to use senior services can be a difficult and emotional experience. Not only are there practical questions to be answered, but there also may be feelings of sadness, anger, guilt and resentment. This can be especially challenging for people who juggle the responsibilities of children and careers.
There is No Single Solution
There is no one way to provide help. Circumstances may be influenced by where your parents and siblings live, your resources and your relationship with your parents. In one family, the best choice may be to care for a parent in an adult child's home, while for another family, the best solution means arranging for care-giving services in a senior housing center.
Talk to Your Parents
Talking clearly and directly with parents about their needs and your concerns can be upsetting. Adult children don't like to think about their parents facing sickness, injury or disability. Most aging persons fear losing their independence and are anxious and sometimes fearful about what the future holds. A once independent and supportive parent may, over time, become pessimistic, demanding and hard to deal with. But without prior planning, you risk finding yourself handling an emergency without the time and information necessary to get the best assistance. So find a time to talk without distractions (turn off music, TV, computers and telephones), communicate what you'd like to happen, be an active listener and be sensitive to your parents' feelings. The following are a few additional suggestions that can save head- and heartaches:
• Assess the Situation. The first thing you may have to do is assess your parent's physical or medical condition, financial situation, housing requirements, and social and emotional needs. Your local Agency on Aging is the best place to begin. Call the Eldercare Locator number at 1-800-677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.gov. Services typically include eldercare-service referrals to community-based programs, caregiver support groups and professional case-work services.
One important example is a living will, such as the popular Five Wishes form, which lets adults of all ages plan how they want to be cared for in case they become seriously ill.
• Don't Make Assumptions. Many times, adult children make assumptions about what parents want without asking them or listening to their concerns. Treat your parent as a partner in decisions you must make together. A parent does not want to be treated like a child any more than you want to play the role of parent.
• Seek Support from Others. Draw on your siblings and relatives for support. Get in touch with your parent's community contacts. Assess what the community can provide in the way of hotlines, meals-on-wheels, transportation and community center activities. Some communities are simply not geared toward supporting senior citizens, which leaves more of the responsibility on you and your family.
• Encourage Your Parent to Remain Active and Socially Integrated. Because isolation and loneliness are key factors in determining a senior's well-being, it is important for older adults to remain socially connected. "Loneliness is not what most people think it is, and that's why many seniors don't see the warning signs soon enough to head it off," says Marcia Ory, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor and director of the Active for Life program at Texas A&M University. Research shows that seniors who are socially integrated---in other words, connected to others in an active, positive way---are in better health, retain more of their mental sharpness, and in general live longer than those who become social recluses.
• Be Clear About Your Limitations. For example, you might explain, "I want to be supportive by helping you with shopping and household chores on the weekends, but I won't be able to assist you on a regular basis during the work week."
• Small Things Make a Difference. Simple, practical things such as providing a phone with an amplifier, a handrail in the bathroom or reading materials in large type can make a big difference for your parent.
The key point to keep in mind is that our parents want to feel comfortable and continue to enjoy life. This requires you and your parent to educate yourselves and others about what is needed, what is available, and how to arrive at a solution that is best for all involved.
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