By Candy Arrington
“Can you take me to the grocery store?” My mother’s voice sounded tiny and unsure, unlike this feisty, take-charge little woman. We had returned from a weeklong beach vacation a few days before. Prior to our trip, my mother drove herself everywhere, so I was surprised by her request.
“Yes, I can take you.”
“Oh, good. Thank you.” Relief flooded her voice.
Thus began my six-year caregiving journey. Initially, it involved transporting my mother, who never drove again after the day she asked for my help. Eventually, our roles reversed. I was the parent; she was the child. Ultimately, I was involved in her day-to-day care, took over her finances, and made decisions about her healthcare. In the process, I learned practical ways to successfully navigate this season of life. I also discovered how to enjoy the journey.
Caring for the aging is not unlike a walk on a high wire. You need a balance pole—practical information to help you. Here are some things to consider to maintain balance between the platform of your own life and the responsibilities of helping the aging.
Although communicating sounds simple—a giving or exchanging of information—communication is sometimes difficult. Role reversal creates more challenges. Communicating with the aging involves personality dynamics, hearing issues, frustration, emotions, and, let’s face it, stubbornness—usually on both sides!
One of the key elements in effective communication revolves around the art of listening. Strong-willed, dynamic personalities frequently have trouble doing this because they are impatient, planning what they will say next instead of focusing on the one speaking. More docile personalities allow others to do all the talking and rarely express opinions. The melancholy personality analyzes, often takes generalized statements personally, and is resistant to change. It’s hard to get a sanguine personality to be quiet long enough to have a serious discussion. Understanding personality types helps you think about how you’ll approach topics and respond without increasing tension.
Emotions present other challenges to effective communication. Sometimes deep feelings surface during a simple conversation. Suddenly anger, fear, hurt, or bitterness emerge and change the dynamics of the conversation. With aging, emotions are more “on the surface.” A previously stoic man may cry with little provocation, while a prim and proper woman may begin to pepper her conversation with expletives. Lessen the likelihood of intensely emotional conversations by not broaching volatile subjects when everyone is tired, hungry, or already upset about other issues.
If you’ve always had trouble communicating with a certain person, the aging process will only magnify the difficulties. Determine which family members seem to communicate best. If a younger sibling has more success communicating with a parent, suggest that person introduce touchy subjects.
Spiritual, Social, and Emotional Needs
“Sit down and tell me some news,” said Mama. It was her standard phrase when I arrived at her house and required me to forget all the things on my to-do list and park on her red corduroy sofa for a while. Sometimes I chaffed at the request, but as my mother became more frail, I realized the day would come when I would long for those “set-a-spell” conversations in her paneled den. Our conversations often revolved around current events or news of church members, but many times they drifted to a discussion of Scripture. She had fears about her health, her finances, and her future and needed reassurance that all would work out well and she wouldn’t have to make decisions on her own.
Mama also enjoyed reminiscing about growing up in Alabama, the years surrounding World War II, and the early years of her marriage. In allowing the aging to take you on a sentimental journey with them, you give them a gift and learn from their wisdom and experiences.
Our spiritual, social, and emotional needs are often heightened as we age. Mama enjoyed going out to eat even when mobility became an issue. And she wanted to stay connected to others. The loneliness quotient is huge for the aging, a factor most of us overlook in the hectic dash through our days. When you spend time with your parents or others who are aging, decide before you arrive to put yourself in low gear, or as my father often quipped, “I’m in neutral.” You’ll discover you benefit as much from these visits as they do.
Logistics of Everyday Life
Many seniors need help with things like changing light bulbs in ceiling fixtures, reaching articles on higher shelves, or fetching the paper from the driveway or mail from a roadside box.
Think about things you use on a regular basis and assemble several different kinds of kits: a first aid kit that includes bandages, antibiotic cream, nail clippers, and emery boards; an office kit with stamps, a small stapler and staples, envelops, pens, and a calculator; or a kit that includes different sized batteries and tape. Use plastic zipper-type bags or a small plastic bin with an easy-to-remove lid and label the containers. Your aging friend or family member will appreciate these items.
Another aspect of practical help involves providing transportation, when needed, and a second set of ears at appointments. Medical practitioners often zip in and out of examination rooms, leaving little time for discussion. Help your aging loved one make a list of questions and concerns before the appointment and then make sure the practitioner stays in the room long enough to hear and answer questions.
Making Difficult Decisions
As my mother recovered in a care facility following another vertebra fracture, I noticed she was not progressing with physical therapy rehabilitation. Nearing the end of the allotted time, my husband and I realized she was not strong enough to function at home alone. Although she had lived with us for short periods of time, diminished mobility made coming to our house impossible. We made the difficult decision—financially and emotionally—to move her to an assisted living center.
Sometimes you reach a point when home care isn’t the best care. Finding a good care facility can be a daunting task. That’s why it’s good to investigate options before a crisis makes it a necessity. Look at staff-to-patient ratio, cleanliness of the facility, amenities (transportation to appointments, laundry services, and activities), bathing schedules, medication management, and emergency policies.
Selling the person’s house to provide financially for facility care may be necessary. This is always difficult for the family and the aging one, because for them it signals no returning to familiar surrounds and may feel tantamount to a death sentence.
While my mother made the decision to stop driving on her own, many seniors, especially men, hold on fiercely to this last bastion of independence. Knowing when and how to encourage hanging up the keys is a tough call, but ultimately, diminished vision or reaction time, medications that cause drowsiness, and the possibility of endangering themselves or others are the deciding factors. You may have to enlist the help of a vision specialist or doctor, or help the aging person face the possibility of being sued and losing everything if responsible for the death or injury of someone else in a driving accident.
Honoring the Aging
Leviticus 19:32 reminds us, “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God.” We honor the aging by recognizing their need to feel useful and by acknowledging the wisdom that comes with their years. Our lives are greatly enriched by their presence and every moment we spend helping, listening, consoling, or encouraging honors them and God.
Candy Arrington lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina and is the coauthor of When Your Aging Parent Needs Care: Practical Help for This Season of Life (Harvest House, 2009).
Important Information to Keep on Hand for Aging Parents
• Bank account numbers, including certificates of deposit and required PIN numbers
• Social Security numbers
• Insurance policies through employers or former employers and privately purchased policies
• Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits
• Wills (If a will hasn’t been executed, encourage doing so immediately.)
• Marriage certificate (necessary to file for life insurance benefits)
• Birth certificates
• Debt: mortgages, promissory notes, credit card debt, and money owed to others
• Assets: deeds to real property, vehicle and boat titles, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, checking and savings accounts, contact information for banks, financial advisors, or brokers, and cash or other assets hidden in unusual locations