Mother Knows Best: Respecting boundaries while doing what’s best for an aging parent

We see it all the time. The roles reverse and adult children come to us carrying the responsibility of providing and finding care for their aging parent. But the truth is the roles never fully reverse. Regardless of age, you will always be your parent’s child. The flip side of that is your aging parent will always be an adult with their own power of choice, values, and wishes. The question becomes, how do adult children find the balance between respecting their parent’s privacy while supporting their safety and quality of life? 

How many times have you heard the saying, “Mother knows best”? We want to always see our parents as unchanging, capable and independent people. This image can even make it difficult to see the changes in our own parents as they age. The truth is language plays a huge role in respecting and supporting our aging parents. Knowing when to say something and how to say it is half the battle.  

When to Say Something: Looking for Trends

If you notice something that causes you concern it can be difficult to know if you should say something to your parent or not. The key to remember here is to look for trends in behavior and be intentional in your dialogue. When looking for trends keep in mind who the person is and how they’ve always behaved. If a person was a clutter bug all their life, a messy house doesn’t constitute a change in behavior later in life. However, if a person always had an organized space and you notice on-going clutter it may be a signal that something is going on. The second piece to the equation is to be intentional in your discussion. The exact moment that something occurs may not be the best moment to talk about it. It can be really important to step away from the situation, get your thoughts and emotions together, think about the impact on you, and then approach your parent in a neutral environment. It is also important to not jump to conclusions over the cause of a particular situation. Seek to understand and ask questions before you presume to know what is going on.  

If you see the following trends, think about saying something to your aging parent:

  • Confusion, disorientation or language difficulties
  • Declining house/ living environment
  • Change in behavior or mood
  • Change in weight or potential diet changes
  • Expired or unused medications around the house
  • Change in walking, balance, or motor control
  • Increase in depressive behavior such as increased drinking, decline in social activity, hoarding
  • Unexplained and increased dents or scrapes on their car
  • Any danger to self or others  

How to Say It

Pay close attention to the language that you use when making observations or suggesting actions to an aging parent. Avoid phrases that cut your parent out of the choices and decisions such as, “You have to…”, “I insist that you…”, “We are going to…” This can start to feel like verbal parenting, which would suggest that you have power over your parent. The difficult truth is that while your aging parent may be growing more vulnerable in distinct ways, they are still their own person. It is crucial that you remind them of their own power to address a situation as well as your support.

Talking honestly about your own feelings and concerns and the impact a situation has on your life can be a focal point for conversation. Try out something like this: “When I go away on a business trip, I worry that something is going to happen to you or dad and I won’t be here to help. I come back feeling restless and exhausted. It is really taking a toll on me. Could we talk about minimizing your risk of falling in the house? I really care about your safety and having a plan would reduce my stress.”

The Limits

From a legal perspective, you can’t make your parent do anything they don’t want to. They have the right to deny help or care. This can be one of the most difficult situations to be in as an adult child. In these cases, it can take a crisis to make progress in the discussion of getting care or changing living arrangements. However, denying help doesn’t have to be a conversation stopper. The dialogue can continue in the form of getting documents in order. Acknowledge that your loved one has their own wishes and values for their life and it is important to document and communicate those to loved ones in case of an emergency. Reviewing or creating the following advance directives with your loved one may help them think about and cement their wishes:

Living Will- Conveys wishes regarding medical treatment and specific instructions on the course of action you would like to take if you are in a terminal condition, permanent coma, or persistent vegetative state.

P O L S T- Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment. Posted in the house and signed by doctor to provide a portable document of wishes for EMS personnel or other health care workers.

Durable Power of Attorney- Consider who you would like to speak for you in the event that you are unable to due to physical or mental limitations. A durable power of attorney grants decision-making authority to another person(s) that is more broadly applicable than the POLST. Content can largely be made to fit your wishes and needs.

A Neutral Third Party

Sometimes it can be even more difficult to handle a hard truth when it is handed to you by someone you love. If an adult child makes an observation about an ongoing problem, or suggests a solution it is common for parents to dismiss the idea because of the source. A neutral third party professional making even the same recommendations can often have a different outcome. Having a professional involved can make all the difference in the world for family dynamics as well. Especially with difficult situations, the professional is able to be the “bad guy” and take the fall for difficult recommendations, leaving the family with the ability to be on the side of their parent. 

If you are concerned about an aging parent, consider a one-hour elder care coaching session with a professional Geriatric Care Manager. They can help guide difficult conversations, provide a neutral assessment of the situation and make recommendations that bring clarity. 24 hours a day, we’re a phone call away. 800.628.7649.  

Published on May 2, 2014.