Be Prepared To Care for Your Parents
By Leah Lancione
How do you know when it’s time to step in and take a more active role in your parents’ lives? According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, the number of “unpaid family caregivers is set to reach 37 million by 2050, an 85 percent increase from the year 2000.” As baby boomers with parents in their 80s and 90s, you may already be helping them. However, the time is approaching when you’ll have to become the primary caregiver or guardian. Experts advise not to wait until a parent suffers a sudden debilitating injury or illness, but to get involved as soon as you see a decline in their mental or physical health such as difficulty driving, inconsistency in paying bills or failure to maintain basic personal needs. Here are a few tips to help you become a primary caregiver for your aging parents.
First, sit down with your family, including your spouse, children and siblings, make sure everybody is on the “same page” about this major change since everyone will be affected. Establish who is going to be the main caregiver and how duties will be shared. Bring medical tests or other health-related information to the meeting to ensure everyone knows the seriousness of the situation and how safety and health issues can be addressed properly. Also discuss how life may change for everyone. Not only will you, the caregiver, have to make sacrifices and adjust some of your plans, your children and spouse will also have to make compromises and chip in. Furthermore, your parents will feel the impact of the change considerably.
Respect Their Perspective
In her book Caring for Aging Parents, Dr. Linda Rhodes says to be conscious that your parents’ perspective on aging—and all that it entails—may be different from yours. “Chances are, your parents lived a pretty independent life and want to keep it that way.” She explains that though they may want to appear self-sufficient, your parents are likely enduring chronic conditions, watching their friends suffer from major illnesses or conditions, feeling out of touch with modern technology and experiencing real fears of falling, losing memory or being alone. Regardless, Dr. Rhodes says your parents don’t want to feel powerless, appear vulnerable or have to give up the familiar.
Once you’ve had “the talk” with the entire family and the consensus is that you are going to have the honor of tending to your parents’ needs, reassure them that they are still your parents and will receive the same respect as before. If mom or dad grasps that you are there to help them, not misuse power, or make decisions contradictory to their wishes, the relationship will remain affable.
Preserve Their Dignity
Carol Bradley Bursack, editor-in-chief of ElderCare Link (www.eldercarelink.com) doesn’t like the phrases “parenting parents” or “role reversal” because she believes that even though our duties as caregivers to our aging parents increase as their needs become greater, “we should be careful of the words we use because language can determine how we act. Our parents deserve the dignity of being treated as adults.” Ms. Bursack is right in clarifying that although you may feel like roles will reverse since you’ll likely be driving your parents to appointments, overseeing their finances and even assisting with basic functions like bathing, house cleaning, medication and nutrition, you have to be careful not to make them feel degraded or belittled. She advises people to make preserving their parents’ dignity just as important as the other caregiving responsibilities. “I believe strongly in the value of a person’s legacy. No matter how cruel the losses of aging, the person’s past life is not rendered null and void,” Bursack says. You may have to help mom use the restroom or chauffer dad to the doctor’s office, but these deficits in complete self-reliance do not negate their past achievements or make them any less of a person.
Once the emotional implications of this new situation are dealt with, move on to identifying your parents’ actual care needs. The Mayo Clinic advises caregivers to “ask your loved one about their preferences to help you provide the type of assistance they want.” Next, to get a schedule routine going, download a free caregiving task assessment and caregiving assessment worksheet. Go to www.lindarhodescaregiving.com and click “resources” to help set up daily tasks.
Taking Over Finances
The next sensitive area is to gradually take over your parents’ financial matters. This will include paying bills, possibly overseeing the sale of their home and managing health care costs and those associated with a move to an assisted living facility or into your home. Bankrate (www.bankrate.com) provides some guidelines for getting started and making the transition as smooth as possible:
- Find all financial accounts and documents.
- Collect and start paying bills.
- Locate power of attorney or living trust.
- Open your parents’ safe-deposit box.
- Become your parents’ guardian.
- Document everything you do.
- Consider hiring a financial planning team.
- Consider updating investments.
Get an Advance Directive
You should also get an advance directive for your parents, if they don’t have one in place already. “ The directive includes several parts, including: a durable power of attorney, which gives someone legal authority to make financial decisions on another’s behalf; a health care proxy, which is similar to the power of attorney, except it allows someone to make decisions regarding medical treatment, and a living will that outlines instructions for end-of-life care” (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/perfi/basics/story/2012-03-25/caring-for-an-elderly-parent-financially/53775004/1). Experts say it is the “first line of defense” if there is an emergency and the circumstances necessitate that you become the legal guardian immediately. If you don’t have an advance directive in place, AgingCare.com says “the family will have to petition the court to be appointed the parent’s legal guardian.”
Seek Professional Help
Assessing and implementing a daily care schedule and managing your parents’ finances are just the initial steps. So do the research and planning now. It’s better to be ready and not wait for a dramatic incident to thrust you into a role for which you are ill-prepared. Another option is hiring a professional care manager to help you plan the care of your parents. Check out the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers (www.caremanager.org) to locate experienced care managers in your area.