Do you wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about the secrets your aging loved ones may be hiding from you? Or, if you’re the ones aging, do you fear your children will discover you’re less capable than years ago to care for your home, money or your health but you dread letting them know, lest they swoop in and start “running your life?”
I would never have thought that my own “truthful” parents would be hiding secrets from me, their only child, until I “walked in” on them in their home during a planned holiday visit. Living across country from them, my parents and I regularly talked on the phone all the time. But they were somehow “faking it” and not sharing with me what they were living with. My Mom had begun the beginnings of her Alzheimer’s journey and my Dad was in a major overwhelm, trying to care for her. I was in the dark until I saw them sitting in a filthy, unhealthy home, one they’d never have allowed, when they’d been a few years younger.
As I describe somewhat embarrassingly in my book, “OH MY GOD! WE’RE PARENTING OUR PARENTS: How to Transform this Remarkable Challenge into a Journey of Love,” they were lying to me by hiding the depths of their neediness. It was the last thing I would have predicted. I felt that, with all my expertise as a psychotherapist specializing in aging, I certainly should have known or been “better” able to detect their limitations from a distance.
There are many factors at play in the role-reversals associated with aging families. My own parents’ hiding their ill health, their overwhelm and their fear of “losing their independence” — like so many of our aging loved ones — was their mistaken attempt to “protect” themselves. From what? It turns out, they were protecting themselves from me!!!, They had frankly unrealistic concerns and fears of what would happen if and when I started to “help them.” They didn’t want or need me to take over their lives and we all knew that — but they did need some help.
I needed to figure out how to talk to them and get them to receive my help which they obviously needed. Fortunately, I arrived at their home as soon as I did. So when I got there, I did what I am recommending to you here: I looked; I found telltale signs; and I considered what appropriate conversation and action I would needed to take — and then I took it.
You can avoid some of the challenges I encountered by early detection, that is paying attention frequently and over time to some of the signs that YOUR elderly parents may need your help! Depending on what you find, you of the younger generation will want to take a deep breath for the next challenge because you will need to get “brave” enough to address your loving concerns with the parents who raised you and also perhaps with others — your siblings, your parents’ doctors, lawyers and even their neighbors. And, in all candor, this can be a delicate although very important beginning.
You will find it critical to your successful results to take time to plan out your conversations with your parents. You may even wish to rehearse what you want to say. Choose the right time of day (generally not in the late afternoon or evening) when they are alert and the right place (where you have privacy and can be heard). You will want to use a positive tone and sufficient volume to your voice to be heard but not sound angry. Do not talk down to your parents, but be helpful. Avoid shaming them for their “mistakes,” or their having kept secrets from you. You can even be humble. Remember how you liked being talked to by them, when they had something “serious” to tell you.
There are telling signs that your aging, beloved parents may need authentic inter-generational communication from you as well as actual help. The first arena to unlock the “secrets” your aging loved ones may be hiding is:
Your Parents’ Environment:
Is their home negatively impacted by their aging?
Look: Is their home in disrepair; and/or is there dangerous clutter in the halls so passage is challenging; and/or does it need significant maintenance; and/or safety upgrades for their healthy living?
You may find: Highly overgrown yards; broken appliances; piles of old newspapers and other “treasures” blocking exits and hallways inside their home; absence of grab bars in the bathtub; rotting groceries; the absence of healthy, fresh food; dirty clothing and even leftovers strewn around; unexplained dents to their car.
Consider: These conditions are present in their environment, despite the fact that your visit was likely to be known in advance. Members of your family could do this: after enrolling your parents in the benefits of the “fun,” you and your kids can pitch in to use the discovered “secrets” as the opportunity to fix what’s gone amiss in their environment. These “fixing events” can also be a chance for much-desired inter-generational re-connecting. Make it as much fun as you can; play music; keep the conversation light. Everyone will love the results!
The second arena to discover the “secrets” your aging loved ones may be hiding is:
Your Parents’ Finances:
Are their lives and well-being in potential danger because they’re not functioning well?
Look: Are they forgetful about timely paying bills and/or do they get agitated when you talk about these concerns; and/or do they act confused about tasks they used to perform easily, such as balancing checking accounts, preparing for taxes, etc.?
You may find: A desk of unpaid bills and/or piles of unopened mail; and/or there may have been missed doctor, lawyer or accountant appointments; and/or threats of loss or actual loss of their health insurance, late or unpaid mortgage, property taxes, federal and state tax deadlines missed leading to penalties and similar undesirable financial effects.
Consider: Again, if they knew you were coming and “closed the door” to the office with their bills, it may seem they don’t want your help. But no one wants to see aging parents lose their benefits, pay extra in back taxes, or be denied health care when they most need it. Members of your family can do this: the best “financial heads” in the family can offer to check out this situation and effectuate a plan to ensure no undesirable consequences ahead. Both you and your aging folks will sleep better, knowing that any damage already done is being fixed and that there’s a plan to prevent that from happening again. If you discover that they are truly incapable of managing their affairs, you should consult an attorney and consider how to best prevent harm and support their needs.
The third category to unlocking the “secrets” your aging loved ones may be hiding is:
The condition of your parents’ bodies, health, moods and energy:
Are they thriving and finding true happiness, as is truly possible even for centenarians over 100, or are your loved ones’ “golden” years being spoiled by ill health?
Look: Are your senior parents’ changes particularly notable to you and other family members; and/or have your parents had a recent dramatic shift in their health, their moods, their levels of interest in the hobbies and activities they’ve usually loved; and/or is there a disturbing lack of attention to hygiene?
You may find: Poor personal hygiene and/or clothes being re-worn during your visit, although dirty; and/or obvious dental loss; and/or frequent or sharp mood shifts, especially increased annoyance, frustration and confusion; and/or visibly depressed energy; and/or more difficulty in getting up from bed, chairs, and generally difficulty walking or moving; and/or bruising that is unexplained; and/or forgetting to take their medications as prescribed; and/or overeating as an “answer” to loneliness.
Consider: Your parents are likely to be putting on their “best face” for you and are also probably happier than ordinarily to visit with you; thus, these conditions may worsen when you leave. Members of your family can try to get them to reveal what’s really going on. It is so important to remain non-judgmental. Do not over-react to the information they give you or act like you have all the answers. Make every attempt to regularly accompany your parents to their doctor visits. Why? You will know what’s going on; you can ask important questions and encourage compliance with recommended health suggestions. If you sign certain paperwork, you will be able to talk directly with their doctor and that can be very useful.
Depending on the nature of your relationship, your parents may wish to talk about their feelings of loneliness and how they’ve managed to deal with the assorted and growing losses of those they love – sometimes people move away, get divorced, succumb to dementia and death. Try to empathize with them and find meaningful ways to share your life, joys and appreciation for them.
You’ve looked, found and considered the “secrets” your aging loved ones may be hiding from you and compared those to what you’ve actually witnessed. No matter what “secrets” have been uncovered or what limitations have been revealed, numerous scientific studies show: YOU can expand the joys and satisfactions of life, whether you’re the younger generation or the oldest of the old. How?
- Have a positive attitude towards aging (it actually increases our resistance to ill health);
- Do more of what you enjoy in life;
- Feel grateful for what you have, what you’ve done and what you can still do;
- Share your “biography,” the story of your years on the planet and your life lessons;
- Develop more hobbies;
- Take on a meaningful volunteer opportunity and
- Open up to others by making some new friends.
What more can you do for your parents, and what might they ask of you? Jane is a Master Certified POP (ParentingOurParents) Family Coach and can guide you and your family to decide what the best steps are to take next and how to transform your challenges into a journey of love…