“Caring for elderly parents is emotionally challenging, but it’s also a beautiful opportunity for you to express the gratitude and love you feel for Mom and Dad,” says Keerti Sharma, MD, a geriatrician with Atlantic Health System. Geriatricians are primary care physicians with specialized training to treat older adults.
When parents reach their 70s or early 80s, it’s important to acknowledge that things are changing for them — and for you. Not only are your parents losing their independence, but you’re losing your role as a carefree child. This can be uncomfortable at first, because grown children are rarely prepared for the role reversal of parental caregiving.
“Most parents don’t want to burden children about their physical and mental health,” says Dr. Sharma. “These topics are not easy to discuss but getting comfortable with the conversation is the only way to become aware of your parents’ well-being.”
Dr. Sharma offers nine tips to help navigate the complexities of caregiving and improve the family’s experience with aging.
- Take notice of what’s going on at home. Is there food in the fridge? How is Dad’s hygiene? Are any expired medications sitting around? Is Mom repeating herself? Are bills getting paid? Pay attention to the living situation and assist where you can in a gentle and respectful way.
- Make a list of your parents’ doctors and go with them to their visits whenever you can. This simple introduction inserts you into health care discussions and will bring comfort to your parents in case of an emergency. Make sure you know their pharmacy, too.
- Initiate a conversation about end-of-life wishes Each parent should have three signed documents on file to carry out important health care decisions -- a health care proxy document, a living will and, in appropriate circumstances, a practitioner order for life sustaining treatment (POLST).
- Offer emotional support. Aging can be a time of vulnerability and loss, leading to feelings of loneliness, sadness and even depression. Spend time at their home and engage in things they enjoy. This can replace declining social relationships when friends move, become sick or pass.
- Support daily living. Daily activities may now be difficult, such as cooking, cleaning or personal hygiene. In-home caregivers can help with household chores or meal preparation. Keeping track of appointments, medications and treatment plans can also relieve their burden.
- Respect the physician-patient relationship. Encourage them to stay with their doctor if it’s a trusted relationship that serves them well. When health care becomes too complex, a geriatrician can join the team and assess independence and quality of life.
- Make safety a priority. Living in the same environment for many years gives false sense of safety. Consider installing handrails, a medical alert system or other safety features to prevent falls. And when the house no longer feels safe, work gently with your parents to make a move.
- Consider help. It’s crucial not to neglect your own well-being, so seek help in the form of respite care or an in-home health aide. Or, maybe it is time to consider a more suitable living arrangement for long-term care such as assisted living or a nursing home.
- Unload the burden of guilt. Give yourself permission to make guilt-free decisions. Caregivers truly want to make the right decisions for their parents. If it means letting Mom have extra ice cream because it gives her joy rather than telling her to watch her sugar intake, it’s ok.
“Life expectancy has increased in our society,” says Dr. Sharma, “People used to live into their 60s in multi-generational environments. Now, they’re living into their 90s and families can’t always provide the level of care their parents need.
“That’s when a geriatrician can get involved and help manage multiple chronic illnesses, cognitive or functional deficits, or even just provide preventive care — all with a focus on quality of life. We can be a trusted partner as dependency increases and care becomes more intimate. The conversations are never easy or simple, but we should cherish this time because not everyone is given the chance to grow old.”
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