5/1/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

Caring for aging parents can be challenging on many levels. In the third of her series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging,” Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones shares caregiving advice from children who have been there.

Back when you were raising your kids, you may have read some books, taken a class or two, or at least talked to other parents about what to do and what not to do. Now, your parents may need the same level of care from you. But rather than arming yourself with knowledge, you’ve probably chosen not to think about it, much less do anything about it!

So that you’re not left in the lurch during this challenging time, we’ve compiled some insights from adult children who have had to learn their lessons the hard way. By sharing their advice on caring for aging parents, we hope to save you some of the missteps and help make this time with your parents a little less stressful and a whole lot more special.

Discover your parents’ wishes

“Ask the hard questions. All of them,” says Lory, who cared for her father during the last year and a half of his life. “It’s a lot easier to have the conversation when the end is theoretical than when it’s imminent.”

Find out your parents’ preferences in terms of care – home health, assisted living, nursing home (and which ones) – if you or other family members can’t provide that care. Ask if there are facilities or communities they prefer over others. Make sure their legal documents, like wills, powers of attorney, and medical directives, are in order. Know if they want to be cremated or buried; also ask them what kind of funeral or memorial service they’d like to have. Write a draft of their obituary early (you can even have your parent help you).

“I wish we would have had discussions earlier,” admits Tracie, whose mother is in her late 80s and reluctant to make changes now. “I wish we had plans set in place if this happens or that were to happen, etc.”

Gather all the important info

Although it may feel uncomfortable, even disrespectful, to meddle in your parents’ money, you need to be aware of their financial situation.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to know exactly what’s in their bank accounts to the last penny,” explains Monique, who helped her mom care for her dad and then planned long-term care for them both. “You still should know what accounts they have, and where they are located. A designated family member should be jointly attached to those accounts, in case the primary account holder is unable to sign checks or pay bills.”

In addition to their financial accounts, find out about their Social Security benefits or pensions, monthly bills, tax returns, Medicare and other insurance information, and passwords to online accounts – anything and everything necessary to quickly jump into the driver’s seat.

Develop a thick skin

Man with his elderly father. By Imtmphoto. Caring for aging parents can be challenging on many levels. Seniors Guide shares caregiving advice from adult children who have been there.

“I was trying to learn the piano during the pandemic and recorded ‘Silent Night’ to play for my dad and stepmom over the phone at Christmastime,” says Teresa, whose father has dementia. “Before the recording had even ended, I heard my dad laughing over the phone line. When the song was over, he exclaimed, ‘That was the worst thing I’ve ever heard!’” Teresa was immediately deflated; however, after a few more episodes like this, she learned to laugh off her dad’s unintentional insults, which he always forgot hours later, or simply let them roll off her back.

As your parents age, they may feel freer to say what’s on their mind, even though it may hurt your feelings, frustrate you, or even make you angry. This brutal honesty may be compounded by dementia, chronic illness, or just feeling lousy all the time. While this can make caring for aging parents more emotionally wrenching, try to remember the loving things they say – when they say them – and chalk up the rest to age. You’ll get to be grouchy and blunt one day too!

Share the care … and don’t forget self-care

You don’t have to do it all alone. In fact, you shouldn’t. “If you’re lucky to have siblings or other family members to help share responsibility, take advantage,” recommends Abby, whose two sisters helped her care for their mother after their father died. Take up those well-meaning friends, neighbors, church members, etc., on their offers to help by enlisting them to run an errand, bring a meal, or simply fill the bird feeders so your mom can watch the birds.

And while you’re caring for your parents, don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. Plan lunch with a friend, take a walk, get that pedicure or massage that you’ve been putting off. Find plenty of opportunities – even if only for 15 minutes at a time – to recharge and refresh.

Put yourself in your parents’ shoes

As Bette Davis said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” There are the aching joints, declining memory, sagging skin, and a never-ending stream of doctors’ appointments and funerals. And if that’s not bad enough, your parents may feel like you’re trying to take over their life!

In a 2004 study about how older people really feel about their helicopter kids, seniors reported feeling “annoyed by children’s overprotectiveness but appreciate the concern it expresses.” In essence, parents love their kids, but most of the time, they wish they’d mind their own business!

“One of the scariest things to people as they age is that they don’t feel in control anymore,” writes Steven Zarit, a professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University in The Atlantic. Often seniors’ response is digging in their heels and insisting on doing it their own way, also known as stubbornness.

Jane’s father lives in the country, far from family and neighbors, and has some back problems that affect his balance. His daughter worries that if her dad fell, no one would even know it. “Here and there, I suggest things like some kind of fall detection system. Not surprisingly, he dismissed the idea,” she explains. She also has tried daily phone calls to check in. That was a nonstarter too. While Jane just wants her dad to be safe, her father likely sees her suggestions as an infringement on his independence.

Zarit advises, “Do not pick arguments. Do not make a parent feel defensive. Plant an idea, step back, and bring it up later. Be patient.”

The bottom line

If your parents are lucky enough to reach old age, they may one day need your care or at least your support. If you do find yourself caring for aging parents, you may not be totally ready for it (who is, really?!), but at least you’ll be better prepared.

More in the series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging”

Writer Terri L. Jones shares more information on what to expect during the stages of aging and how to navigate this potentially challenging time.

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones