Intervening with aging parents

I’m frustrated and concerned about my aging parents who live on the other side of the country. The past few years when I’ve gone to visit them I notice aspects of their home that are falling apart. It makes me worried about their safety. The most recent example involves a staircase that is breaking down, lacks a bannister and is too steep for them. Recently when I spoke with my mother about this it turned into a big argument, and now we aren’t speaking. How can I help my aging parents if they resist my support?

Intervention of any kind can be tricky. When, why and how to intervene in the lives of people we love needs to be carefully considered, because it can often be met with resistance. The issue here is about independence versus security and safety.

For the person being confronted, there is often defensiveness. Denial is a mighty force when people don’t want to face their fears. I would argue that the higher the defensiveness, the greater that person’s fear.

There are a multitude of fears your parents may be dealing with (consciously or unconsciously). A major fear is losing control of one’s schedule, possessions or finances. Your mother may be afraid of being vulnerable, losing her freedom, not being heard or valued, being blamed, and of course the most existential one of all — fear of her own mortality. The more you can recognize and have empathy for her fears, the gentler (and hopefully more effective) your approach to intervening can be.

Your parents have been independent all their adult lives, so it is not surprising that they would have strong opinions when you try to intervene. Start by having an open conversation in which you ask them what changes they want or need at this stage in their life. Do your best to openly listen to them first and then suggest alternatives. Give them time to ponder and digest the options.

The more you push and the faster you insist, the more they may push back. That being said, it’s important to be insistent when it comes to your parents’ safety. This is something you don’t want to compromise on.

One specialist on aging stated, “Late life involves fairly constant tension between independence and dependence. … We adult children want our older parents to be safe and to be sure all is well for them. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as 100-percent safety and it must be balanced with the older person’s priorities and preferences. … It may be best to offer help, more than once, talk with them about incremental and realistic goals to help make things safer and easier for them, and seek services that seem mutually acceptable.”

Ask yourself how much of this is about them and how much of this is about you and your own expectations, sense of responsibility or need to control. Beyond your fears regarding your parents’ safety, examine if there are other factors you are bringing to the debate with your mom, such as a clash of egos or your own sadness regarding losing your parents as you’ve known them.

It is never easy to turn the table and have the child become the parent. No parents want to be a burden to their children. And if we live long enough we will all get to the point where we face losing some of our autonomy and must surrender to the caregiving from younger generations. And let’s face it, most likely we will respond in a similar fashion to your mother! At the end of the day, we all want to age with dignity.