Demographic changes tend to have significant impacts within countries – from consumer trends to policies and legislation. According to a 2017 report from the Administration for Community Living (ACL), the 85 and over population in the United States is projected to be 14.6 million in 2040 – that’s about a 128% increase from its 2016 number of 6.4 million. Such a large demographic shift has the potential to impact our society in a variety of ways. One such impact that I already observe in my financial advising practice, is the caring for aging parents – in particular those with diminished mental or physical capacity. Caring for aging parents can feel overwhelming. I want to spend this blog post (and a follow up post) detailing what I feel are important issues to consider and strategies to employ when one is concerned for one’s aging parents.
Aging Parents Often Seem Inflexible, But They’re Not
Older individuals can often give the impression they are difficult to work with—perhaps even “stuck in their ways” or unreasonably stubborn. I believe this is the case because as we age, we become more unique in our personalities. People are shaped by their experiences. The older one gets, the more varied and unparalleled one’s experiences are, and consequently, the more emotionally unique one becomes. Throughout life we develop our own heuristics (i.e. rules of thumb) on how to deal with events in our lives. As a result, we tend to be very individualistic in how we go about our lives—which includes how and where we receive care from our family or professionals. Our unique attitudes and mentalities can be challenging for others to appreciate—even our own family members.
The best remedy for this situation I have found, is for the younger generation(s) to do as much listening as possible. This is not an original or particularly unique strategy, but it is probably the most important and effective. People will pretty much tell you exactly what they want and what they are most concerned with as long as you are willing to listen. Patience is key. In our busy lives, with significant demands on our time, it can be challenging to sit with an aging parent and try to exact from them exactly how they want to be cared for.
Let’s suppose you are concerned about your father’s safety while living alone. He doesn’t move about the house as well as he used to (too many stairs). He holds on to furniture just so he can balance himself as he transfers from room to room. At any moment he is liable to fall on the hard tile flooring, which is laid throughout his entire house. You are so troubled by his living arrangements, in fact, that it is costing you sleep and causing you stress. One day he falls and hurts his arm – no major damage but definitely a large, ugly bruise. At this point, you figure you ought to voice your concerns about his safety living alone in his house. His response is that you are being overly cautious and a little bossy. He tells you that he is fine and you shouldn’t worry about him.
The above example is similar to many situations I have encountered with aging parents and their adult children. Instead of telling a parent how concerned you are, I feel a better approach would be to ask the parent probing questions about his/her plans for the future:
- Are you secure in your current living situation with all the opportunities of slipping and falling?
- What is your plan if you are no longer able to live independently?
- How will you know when you are no longer able to live independently?
- Have you considered downsizing or moving into independent living?
- Do you know anyone who has made such a transition? What was his/her experience?
- Would you like to tour a few places just to see how they feel?
I could continue to list possible questions, but those are a few sensible ones. It’s important to keep in mind that few people actually sit down and contemplate these questions – the answers are certainly not top-of-mind for most elderly individuals. When the adult child broaches these subjects, their goal should be only to start a dialogue that will build in depth and detail over time. This process is designed to be collaborative and deferential to the aging parent, which is fundamental to obtaining the parent’s buy-in and maintaining his/her sense of autonomy.
Many Elderly Parents Don’t Enjoy the Role Reversal of their Children in Charge
A second issue that I frequently encounter when caring for aging parents is that most elderly parents do not relish the role reversal they find themselves in when their children become the caretakers or authority figures in their lives. This dynamic reminds me of a scene in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The character Jaques has a monologue wherein he describes the seven “ages of man”. According to Jaques, the seventh and final stage “is second childishness and mere oblivion”. Through Jaque’s monologue, Shakespeare is making the point that people, in their old age, ironically return to a state similar to their younger, even infant selves, wherein they require adult supervision in their day-to-day living. The potential need for assistance as we reach old age is why I often recommend owning long term care insurance.
The Role of Long Term Care
In order to begin receiving long term care insurance benefits, contract owners need assistance with their activities of daily living (i.e., bathing, dressing, eating, transferring, toileting & continence). When I first explain long term care insurance to clients, I often point out that these six activities are the same activities one performs for a baby or toddler. Sometimes I bring up Shakespeare’s play and even show them Jaque’s monologue in order to demonstrate how they may need assistance and care during their advanced years. I often compare that potential situation to child rearing—but in reverse. Long term care insurance aids family members because it allows them to continue to care for the aging parents without being converted into personal nurses. In other words, spouses can remain spouses and children can remain children to the elderly adult. Sometimes, though, conflict can still arise.
Friction between elderly parents and their adult children can sometimes emerge during caretaking because, even though the parents may need assistance like young children, they are not children. They are, in fact, adults with a lifetime of experiences who are accustomed to their independence. When subjected to their adult children’s supervision and directive, the elder parents can feel a loss of control and freedom. Additionally, they may feel as though their needs are not properly understood, taken seriously or possibly even addressed. On top of all this, parents can sometimes harbor feelings of guilt as they don’t want to be a burden on anyone, especially their own children.
Demonstrate Empathy Towards Your Parent’s Changing Circumstances
Change can be incredibly difficult, and it is almost always at least a little unpleasant. The idiom “a change for the better” implies that the present situation is, in some notable way, worse than it needs to be. People develop and grow accustomed to habits and rituals over long periods of time. Any significant change in one’s life is best appropriated gradually over time. However, this is not always the case when caring for aging parents. A sudden illness or medical event may necessitate immediate and possibly permanent changes for the parent. Abrupt and consequential life changes can produce feelings of anxiety for anyone, especially the elderly, who have enjoyed their own independence for a long while. I believe it’s important for all loved ones involved in such meaningful changes to be as empathetic as possible to the aging parent(s). The parent(s) will appreciate the sentiment, and it may even bring everyone involved closer together.
This concludes part one of this blog. I will list three additional considerations in the next post. I decided to divide this post in two because these considerations are more emotional and interpersonal in nature. The next post will be more a guide or “how to” when caring for aging parents. Please look for it!