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  • Cameron Oglesby

How to avoid the pitfalls of parenting your parents

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

A middle-age man worries aloud about his father driving at night. His father complains about being badgered by his kids about his driving. While the son sees it as a matter of his dad’s safety, the father sees it as a challenge to his decision-making ability.

Whenever a thirty something woman visits her mother, she checks the use-by dates on the foods in the pantry and refrigerator. To the daughter, that’s a loving act of care. To the mother, though, it’s a violation of privacy and inspection for things to criticize.

Out of love for their aging parents, family caregivers in the Sandwich Generation often spend more hours caring for their parents than their children. They sacrifice salary, raises, career advancement, pensions, retirement funds and other financial benefits. They cope with extra stresses.

Only to get what seems like conflict, resistance and resentment in return. But that needn’t happen. It’s all a matter of perspective, of timing, and of how solutions to parents’ needs are presented to them.

Perspective Dr. Lee Lindquist, chief of geriatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, conducted a series of focus groups asking older adults why they resisted help. Among their answers were fears of losing independence, becoming a burden, and giving up control over their own lives.

A recent study led by Steven Zarit, Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State, concurs. “One of the scariest things to people as they age is that they don’t feel in control anymore,” Prof. Zarit says. “So if you tell your dad not to go out and shovel snow, you assume he’ll listen. It’s the sensible thing. But his response will be to go out and shovel away…It’s a way of holding on to a life that seems to be slipping away.”

Timing While caring for a parent, you notice what looks like a recurring problem. So you go on line or to your library to research it, analyze and check out alternatives, and finally, having devoted all that time and effort to doing something good for your parents, you suggest what you honestly believe to be the solution that’s best for them.

Only to have them say, “We’re fine” and totally reject it.

What’s at play here is timing: While you’ve taken the time to do your homework, your parents haven’t. To them, it can feel like hearing some totally brand-new idea they’ve never heard or even thought about before and being told to commit to it without further time or thought. Your solution may be excellent from an objective standpoint. But does it work subjectively, taking your parents’ priorities into account?

For example, it may very well be that the safety of an assisted living or other residential facility is what your parents need. But is it what they want? Some 90% of senior parents want to live out the rest of their lives in their own homes.

As health care consultant David Solie puts it, “Older adults see where they live as the Alamo and will make their last stand defending it. [It’s] usually the last spot on earth they control, and for them control is everything in a world where authority is fading.”

And all the research, analysis and logic in the world won’t change that.

Presentation To their grown-up children, older parents need to be cared for. But being cared about is what the parents want.

Participants in the 2004 SUNY study “express[ed] strong desire for both autonomy and connection in relations with their adult children, leading to ambivalence about receiving assistance from them…They are annoyed by children’s overprotectiveness but appreciate the concern it expresses.”

So instead of telling parents what to do, ask how they’d like to solve problems. Give them choices. Ask about their feelings, needs values and preferences – as they see them. And listen – really listen –to their answers.

Instead of springing a new idea or strategy all at once, plant the idea, step back, and bring it up later. Give your parents the chance to think about and process it as long as you did – and maybe arrive at buy-in.

Remember that it’s not about winning arguments, but about reassuring your parents that you’ll listen to them, take their concerns seriously, and be there for them, no matter what.

If nothing else works Instead of countering stubbornness head-on, objective help from an authoritative third party can help. Our thorough three-part needs assessment is particularly good for that. For one thing, it’s totally objective and neutral; there’s no family baggage to get in the way. It never presents ready-made, off-the-shelf “solutions.” Instead, we ask questions. Of the older parents, of their caregiving children, of the rest of the family. About everything from physical, psychosocial and mental status to mobility issues and nutritional needs to legal wishes. What we learn becomes the basis of a holistic, coordinated care plan – one that your mother, your father and your whole family can happily live with.

To learn what a difference that can make, please contact us for a consultation.

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