If you find yourself in the midst of raising children or grandchildren, managing a career and caring for an aging parent or relative, you are not alone. In fact, a 2012 Pew Research report found that about half of all U.S. adults in their 40s or 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child.
Sometimes it is our aging parents who pose some of the biggest challenges. They have this strong desire to remain independent, and their children have a strong desire to care for them.
"I always like to focus on the things that are necessary for aging parents to stay as independent as possible," says Amy Boulware, geriatric and special-needs care manager for Chambliss Law. "The desire to remain independent is so strong, sometimes parents are willing to go to great lengths to keep up the appearance they are doing well on their own. I call this 'malicious independence.' They know they aren't doing well, but they keep it from their family members. The sad thing is, often, they have already lost their independence because they are isolating themselves and not getting to do the things they enjoy doing."
As much as people often don't want to admit that they are getting older and more fragile, the truth is, things happen as we age. Boulware believes the goal of providing good care to our parents is to avoid making decisions in the midst of a crisis.
"If we can help parents think about the things that are becoming more difficult for them such as going to the grocery store, cooking or keeping the house clean, then we can develop a plan to remove some of the burdens and help them stay as independent as possible," says Boulware, who has a master's degree in social work and is a state licensed advance practice social worker.
"Most people do estate planning, but few think about doing elder-care planning," Boulware says. "Inevitably, something happens and then you are thrown into making quick decisions."
QUESTIONS TO ASK
How do you have that hard conversation? Boulware suggests that you begin the process by asking questions like:
» What are the things that are important to you as you age?
» How can we work together to help you have quality care later in life? What does that look like for you?
» What can you afford?
» What are the lifelong behaviors or details that make you tick that would be very important to know? For example, do you have a nightly routine, always have a certain snack, use something to help you sleep at night, etc.? There may be routines and rituals that you know nothing about that if discontinued, could cause agitation, fear or frustration for your parent.
» Who would you like to designate to make decisions should you become unable to do so? When do you think would be a good time to take care of that?
» If we see you struggling, how would you like us to handle that?
If you try to have the conversation and your parents won't let you, seek help from a trustworthy third party.
This conversation in particular is often one we put off because it's just plain uncomfortable and nobody wants to think about the end of life. Mapping out a plan ahead of time can pave the way for smoother transitions in the future. It can also strengthen your family relationships because the choices your parents make are truly theirs, and it will be easier to honor them by following through with their wishes.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.