One of our closest relationships in our lifetime is with our parents. And as our parents get older, they might need help.
While every situation is different, it can be challenging to know the right approach to take when supporting them through their golden years. Here are a few practices to keep in mind:
Always listen and use empathy. Empathy is at the foundation of respecting our parents’ dignity. You will need to be present and listen carefully and patiently to uncover how they believe things are going. Most parents find it difficult to express that they need help. It might be surprising to learn of their frustration with some of the losses they are experiencing. Consider how you might feel if you were having some difficulties with your health, independence, mobility, energy, friends. At some point, you will need to pro-actively advocate for them, so it is important to understand how they feel. Most families find it helpful to prioritize a list of concerns. This understanding will allow you to advocate effectively.
Support in a person-centered way. When we look at our needs, there are many categories. We have basic physical needs, spiritual needs, emotional needs, social needs, financial needs, recreational needs and more. Make sure that you consider each of your parents’ needs. Some families focus on the physical needs but do not consider the other important categories of their life.
Always respect their dignity. It is critical for us to include our parents in discussions about their needs. It is called the “nothing about me, without me” approach. One of the things that remains intact as we get older is that we are in charge of our lives. We call the shots. We direct our path forward. Even though our adult children can help by guiding us or brainstorming with us, it ultimately is the parents’ decision.
Always support their independence. Even if they aren’t as independent as they once were, focus on what they can do. Support them in the things that they need support in. An example could be helping them at the grocery store, as they still enjoy cooking. Many adult children have an “all or nothing” approach. Families tell me frequently that their parents need full support or that they do not need support at all. Neither scenario usually is in play. The support typically is needed in a gradual way. Each year, your parent might need another level of support. Build it out as you go. Make sure to meet needs gradually, with additional support.
Always provide choice. Let’s use the grocery issue as an example for building out a strategy. There are many ways to help with groceries. A few include:
• Accompany your parent to the grocery store.
• Help them set up an account online to order groceries and set up a delivery time.
• When you go the grocery store, ask them if they need you to pick up anything.
• Take full charge of the meal planning and grocery shopping or divide and conquer with your siblings.
After you brainstorm with your parents, ask them what choices work best for them. Give them some time to think about it, then spring into action. These small changes can add up to much-appreciated support. In addition, your parents can have a voice in the action taken. This will make them feel good about accepting the help.
One of the most important and rewarding acts of love you can offer as an adult child is to support your parents and help them along as they age. But one of the most harmful things you can do is do it the wrong way.
I see many family relationships that have been nurtured during a lifetime that are enhanced through this time period. Sadly, I also see relationships deteriorate if the right care and approach are not used. If you use these five practices, you will provide support so they can remain independent, happy and healthy in a respectful and dignified way.
Laura Nissen is a dementia specialist for Luther Manor Communities in Dubuque.