Editor’s Note: Elder care is a growing concern for many of us: how do return the love and support our parents have given us? There are so many concerns: health, finances, and legal preparations to name a few. In Wendy Williams Whiteman’s book, Creative Caregiving and Beyond we meet a modern family facing these issues, and we learn from their experiences. In this excerpt, come take a look:
George and Janice decide it’s time to involve the other siblings in their growing concerns about their aging parents. George sends an email out to everyone about three weeks before Thanksgiving because all the siblings will be together at Walter and Mildred’s home on Thanksgiving Day:
Email from George to Elizabeth, Susie, and Trevor
Hello, Everyone: I trust this email finds everyone in good spirits. I’ll get right to the point. Janice and I have been spending a little more time with Mom and Dad lately, and we are concerned about them trying to manage that big house by themselves. We’ve noticed Dad being forgetful about things, and that is out of character for him. Mom said that once while she was taking a nap, he drove the car to the grocery store to pick up a few things and couldn’t remember how to get home. She thought it was funny, but I’m not sure she realizes that may indicate a problem. Daniel and Greg went over to visit them last week, and Daniel said Mom kept getting their names mixed up.
So we feel like we should talk to them over the holidays and let them know that we are concerned. There are some posh facilities they could go to where they would be comfortable, or there are home health- care options. My other concern is how these memory lapses may be affecting their finances and other decisions.
Please email me back or call me in the evening with your thoughts. Regards, George
Response to All from Elizabeth
“Thanks, George. Why don’t you handle this? You are close to them, and I just don’t have a lot of time to devote to any of it, especially with my travel schedule.”
Response to All from Susie
“George, I think you are overreacting. Old people forget stuff. I think they are fine where they are.”
Response to All from Trevor
“I see what you are saying, George. Why don’t we speak to them after dinner on Thanksgiving, when we are all around and relaxed?”
After Thanksgiving dinner, in the early afternoon, George calls his siblings, Elizabeth, Susie, and Trevor into the living room with their mom and dad. The spouses, kids, and grandkids go to the movies to give them some privacy for the conversation.
George says, “Mom, Dad, we really appreciate all you have done for us through the years. You’ve worked hard all your life, and we’re concerned that maybe this house is too big for you guys.”
Walter stands up, obviously annoyed and says, “I don’t need to hear this! I am just fine. George, I can’t believe you are trying to shove me out of my own house!”
Mildred says, “Well, speak for yourself, Walter, I think George is just trying to help.”
“Well, he isn’t!” says Walter as he storms out of the room. Mildred dutifully follows her husband out of the room.
Susie says sarcastically, “Great job, George. I knew this would happen.”
George looks down his nose at Susie and says, “Well, maybe you are afraid of losing the gravy train.”
Elizabeth and Trevor look at each other as if to ask, “What is George talking about?”
Susie starts to cry and yells, “You just don’t understand!” and leaves the room.
George apologizes to Elizabeth and Trevor for mishandling the conversation with their parents and suggests that they spend a little time figuring out their next strategy. George dismisses their questions about Susie’s reaction.
Elizabeth points out that their dad probably felt like the kids were ganging up on him. As a retired air force colonel, he’s used to being in charge of things and may have a lot of pride around these issues, even if he knows he’s not in tip-top mental capacity anymore.
Trevor points out that their mom might be helpful in talking to him because she seems more open to making a change. While she has always done whatever he told her to do, he is very protective of her and will listen to what she has to say about her own needs.
Elizabeth finally says, “Why don’t you let me talk to Mom and see how she is feeling about possibly going to an upscale retirement community? If we show them where they could go, they might be more willing to accept it.”
Trevor wonders out loud if they should figure out how their parents are doing financially and how they would fund the upscale retirement community. George says he knows their banker, Kim Dartmouth. While the banker cannot give them specific information about their parents’ finances, they can at least give the banker a heads-up that the siblings are concerned about their dad’s memory and decision-making.
When Mildred returns to the room, Elizabeth suggests they take a walk and learns that Mildred is feeling a little overwhelmed with the house and cooking for her husband every day. She knows nothing of their finances and wonders if she should know more in case something happens to him. She confides that she hasn’t told him any of this because he seems grumpier in his old age. Elizabeth is a bright businesswoman and gets permission from her mom to do a little investigation of their finances. Mildred seems relieved and discusses with Elizabeth how to bring up the subject to Walter to let him know how she’s feeling. Elizabeth changes her flights so she can stay over a few extra days.
Susie has disappeared, driving off after leaving the family meeting.
When Walter comes back in the room, George apologizes and says he was insensitive in the way he handled things. Walter accepts the apology and changes the subject.
Elder Care: What Happens Next?
The day after Thanksgiving when everyone has gone home except for Elizabeth, she does a little investigation. In looking through her parents’ bank statements, insurance policies, and other documentation, she discovers some rather large withdrawals from their home account that were paid to an individual.
Elizabeth asks her mom, “Who is Mary Stotzer?”
Mildred explains that she is someone from their supper club who has fallen on hard times. “I guess Dad felt sorry for her because she’s been our friend for over thirty years,” she said. When Elizabeth tells her mom the amount, Mildred asks, “Can we afford that?”
Elizabeth also discovers some large stock sales but can’t track where the money went. She suggests they get Walter’s buy-in on getting financial help or allowing Elizabeth to help them keep track of things. Mildred, for the first time in her life, realizes she can’t blindly let Walter handle everything.
Elizabeth calls Trevor and suggests that he refinance his business loan with a bank or other lender because their parents can’t afford to carry the note. Trevor reluctantly agrees. He doesn’t say anything but feels like Elizabeth is taking over everything. He calls George to complain.
Since George is in the doghouse with his dad, Elizabeth decides to call Tom Spencer, her dad’s longtime friend and former business partner, to see if he can help. This is a man whom Walter trusts, so perhaps Walter will agree to accept help.
Ultimately, Walter’s former business partner gets him to agree to get some help managing his finances and to get checked regarding his memory loss and confusion. Tom convinces him it can’t hurt anything, and he might even prove to his smarty-pants son that he got it wrong.
Elder Care: Lessons Learned
The Elder family scenario represents some key points about “having the conversation.” Some things didn’t work out so well, but the siblings figured out how to re-strategize by leveraging the strongest relationship connection between Mildred and Elizabeth. Here are the key learning points we can pull from the story.
Plan Something Other Than an Ambush
As you can see from the story, the father felt ambushed, even though he needed help desperately. Gathering the siblings to have a talk with their parents obviously backfired. A better strategy emerged, but people storming out of the room could have been avoided. If one or two of the children had approached their father and mother without the whole clan present, the outcome might have been very different.
When someone feels attacked, it’s human nature to demonstrate fight- or-flight behavior, which Walter did by getting mad and running out of the room. Susie showed flight, as she felt attacked by what George said and left the house. Even though George and the siblings were well-intentioned, the first strategy didn’t work.
The good news is that if something like this does happen, you can always step back and re-strategize. This is where watching for opportunities can come into play.
Watch for Opportunities
The siblings noticed that their mother might be more open to making a change. Assigning Elizabeth to talk one-on-one with her mother opened a door to convincing the parents to accept that they needed help. Their mom’s willingness about possibly moving out of the house would open that conversation with her dad at some point. Mildred’s reaction to the large amount of money her husband gave to a friend was an opportunity for Elizabeth to figure out how to get her dad to seek help with his financial decisions.
Use Effective Communication That Parents Will Accept
Elizabeth knew her father needed to hear about getting help from someone he respected. As a take-charge man, she knew it would be difficult to hear the message from one of the children, especially after the way the family meeting had played out.
The siblings made a wise decision to put George in the background and leverage Elizabeth’s relationship with their mother. Elizabeth’s approach was one of discovery. She discovered some things that her mom might even be hesitant to share with her husband.
Elizabeth’s manner of finding out her mom’s feelings about the situation opened the door. Ultimately, Mildred realized that she needed to get more involved in the financial decisions or at least be aware of what Walter was doing with their money.
Allow Elder Family Members to Express How They Feel About a Change
While a family meeting is a good way to have a conversation with elder loved ones about making a change, sometimes it will come across wrong. In this case, asking the parents how they felt about managing the big house in a casual conversation might have allowed Mildred to express her struggles with managing the house and her duties. Every scenario in a family will be a little different. You must figure out the best way to discuss changes with elder loved ones that make the most sense for your family’s situation.
In the scenario, Walter felt like something was being pushed on him. No one asked his opinion about continuing the upkeep of the family home, so he resisted even more out of pride. If Walter was approached differently, based on his personality type and relationship history with the family, he might have reacted to George’s suggestions differently. Giving him more autonomy and control of his situation would allow him to be more open- minded about what his children were trying to communicate to him.
Keep Their Dignity
Your parents likely supported and raised you, your whole life. Even if they faltered along the way and you have unresolved issues with them, they still want to feel they have some authority and control over their lives. In some cases, they are not as mobile as they used to be, or their brain function is not as keen due to the aging process. Talking down to or verbalizing your frustration only creates more stress for them.
Consider how you might feel if you could no longer remember simple things or could not move around as fast as you used to. It can be frustrating. Your elder loved ones don’t need to be reminded of their limitations. Truly, some will become belligerent due to their mental state. You might have to let some of it go and learn to ignore it, knowing this can be a normal part of aging.
Stay as upbeat as you can. Your attitude can be an inspiration to your elder loved one. An article at psychologytoday.com states, “A new study by researchers in Ireland reports that having a positive attitude about aging may help prevent older adults from becoming frail, which, in turn, appears to keep their minds sharp. On the flip side, elder care researchers confirmed that having negative attitudes about the aging effect both physical and cognitive health in later years. The researchers concluded, ‘Negative perceptions of aging may modify the association between frailty and frontal cognitive domains in older adults.’
Your attitude toward elder care should support lifting them up rather than tearing them down, even though you are dealing with your own frustrations. This is a journey best traveled in a partnership as positive as possible.
While having the elder care conversation is an important first step to managing the situation with your elder loved ones, thoroughly assessing the situation is equally important. Getting your elder loved ones organized can include their household belongings, finances, and medical and legal documentation.
This is an excerpt from Wendy Williams Whiteman’s book Creative Caregiving, and Beyond.