Each of us eventually experiences the challenge of watching a parent age and trying to help them navigate the inevitable changes it brings.
My siblings and I for many years have taken on more and more responsibility watching over our mother’s affairs as she’s gotten older.
We’re all happy that we’re able to do something to help her keep some measure of independence. But it’s challenging to know when we need to step in and insist that we need to do more, or do something differently.
I wish we could say we have some great tips for knowing what the right balance is. Our experience is that it’s really a matter of listening the best we can for subtle changes, either explicit or hinted at or, in too many instances, unsuccessfully hidden.
Like anyone, our parents don’t really want to have to ask for help. But what they find and what we’ve found, is that the help is usually welcome when offered.
Not always, of course. Recently, when it became clear that Mom couldn’t keep track of whether she’d taken certain medicines, I ordered her one of those handy little pill boxes that has a different compartment for each day of the week. This one even had compartments for morning and night.
Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly a welcome gesture. “I already have two of those. I don’t use them,” I was told. She wasn’t really being ungrateful. She was just saying that she’s not willing to concede that she might need the help remembering her own medicines. So now I try to ask her – gently – when I call whether she’s taken this pill or that one.
I’ve also tried to help her navigate her finances. She’s from the generation when using a credit card – a charge plate is what she still calls it – was something that you’d do only infrequently. But I’ve tried to coach her that it’s OK to use plastic when she needs it. And then I help her figure out when it makes sense to use a little money to pay down the balance. It’s a lot more economical getting rid of that high interest charge on a credit card than leaving it in an account that’s getting practically no interest.
We’re now in the process of getting her ready to move into senior housing. She welcomes this change and has been looking forward to it for the two years that she’s been on a waiting list. But the place is small and the contents of Mom’s house? Well, it’s amazing how much can get packed into a modest suburban ranch house over 60 years.
So now we’re sifting, trying to honor the sentimentality of so many of the things we’re uncovering, but also trying to be realistic about what she can take with her – and be honest that some of it won’t have the same meaning to the friends and relatives that she suggests should take it.
And then there’s all the paper. Mom has always been good about keeping paperwork, including paid bills, canceled checks, insurance policies and appliance manuals. But you still need to weed through it and decide whether she still really needs to keep that receipt for a clothes dryer purchased in 1975. (We decided that one could go, by the way, along with a different one that was dated 1966.)
It’s been occasionally emotional but also cathartic, an opportunity to share some cherished memories and rediscover some that we’d, frankly, forgotten. We just feel very lucky that this change is something that Mom is happy about and able to do on her own terms.
And that’s probably the takeaway for everyone who will some day face similar circumstances. It makes sense to talk about it now, find out what your parents’ expectations are, and discuss how you might be able to accommodate them in the future. If you’re realistic and honest with each other today, the big changes of the future will be much easier.