Life is what happens to you on the way to… or so the saying goes. What happens when your desire to continue living as you’ve always lived does not match what your body and mind are able to do?
Sarah Jennings’ personal story of caring for her aging parents reveals some valuable lessons about caring for seniors. Adult children can use a more successful and dignified approach once they have a better understanding of what is important for our aging loved ones.
Thank you, Sarah, for your insightful article!
Caregiver Communication and Stubborn Seniors: A Personal Story
By Sarah Jennings
My father had never been a man who liked to be told by others what he ought or ought not do, and he became even more obstinate as he grew older and his physical abilities and cognitive reasoning began declining. Getting him to make decisions that were so obviously in his best interest – like taking his prescribed medications – was a constant battle.
It didn’t make it any easier that my mother – eight years his junior – was often too strong-willed for her own good, as well. She felt that the responsibility of providing care for her husband was hers – and hers alone. She often felt that he could still do things that he was no longer capable of doing. This was likely due to wishful thinking on her part coupled with a desire not to incur my father’s wrath – which could easily be encountered when he felt he was being mollycoddled.
If I had known then what I know now (and haven’t we all said that before) I would have intervened much sooner, and been much more delicate in my approach than was the case when I finally – and ham-fistedly – attempted to assert some rational control over the situation.
By now I’ve come to understand that “control” is the chief issue for older adults struggling to cope with the loss of certain capacities and the ability to manage their own lives in the same fashion that they are accustomed with.
In my haste to take the kinds of proactive measures that I had I neglected for too long, I clumsily attempted to wrestle away control of certain situations from my parents. This was met with fierce resistance and a series of unpleasant squabbles ensued. Though I will rue these unfortunate incidents until the day I die, they did lead me to a better understanding of the challenges faced when dealing with our aging parents who may not always act in a manner conducive to their long term well-being.
Causes of Obstinacy
The reason that my parents were hesitant to cede control of their situation seems obvious to me now, but sadly it wasn’t necessarily intuitive. The things that older adults often value more than anything else is their independence – followed closely by their pride – and even when we logically conclude that their actions (or inactions) are putting the very independence they crave in jeopardy, it is difficult to convey this message in a way that is palatable for them.
It is very common for older adults to sacrifice their health and safety in favor of retaining their independence – even when they confronted with piles of evidence that suggests their behavior is counterproductive. We only add to the challenge when we try to “help” by taking positions – however reasonable – that are perceived as a threat to the autonomy of our parents to control their own lives.
We have all been trained over the years to block out unpleasant thoughts and realities, and the truth of the matter was that my father was simply unwilling to accept the realities of aging. Couple that with my mother’s steadfast refusal to relent to any form of change – a trait that was decades in the making – and it should have been no surprise that their heels were dug firmly in the ground on many issues.
I had to readjust my attitude about the situation and filter all my communication through a different lens, one that accepted the fact that while my advice might be based on sound reasoning, at the end of the day my parents were likely just as likely to see it as unwarranted meddling from their child as they were to look at it as useful guidance from an intelligent adult.
Sadly, I lost my father to cardiac arrest before I had a chance to alter my communications approach, but the lessons I learned from that experience have served me well as I helped my mother manage the life decisions that come with aging. My mother moved into our home almost two years after my father passed, somewhat reluctantly at first, but seven years later she is doing well and we share a wonderful and fulfilling relationship full of mutual respect and effective communication.
Here are some brief lessons I’ve learned over the years for dealing with an aging loved one that is sometimes too stubborn to do what is clearly in their best interest:
- Empathize – This sounds trite, but it is so true. You have to be willing to look at a given situation through the eyes of your aging loved one.
- Listen – Don’t just look at them while they talk, hearing them out while waiting for the opportunity to say your piece. Actually listen. Take their concerns to heart, regardless of how insignificant or silly you think they may be.
- Put up a united front – If there is a particularly difficult situation to manage and your aging loved one is particularly stubborn, enlist the support of other family members and close friends. Make sure everyone is on the same page – nothing is worse than when an older adult is getting contradictory advice from two loved ones – and strategize effective ways to communicate your position together.
- Pick your battles – You have to be willing to compromise, and in fact I’ve found that you want to be deferring to your aging loved one’s wishes at least 80% of the time. Let the majority of the small stuff slide and you’ll be in a better position to assert yourself on the more important issues that arise.
- Explore your options – If the communication barriers are proving to be too overwhelming, put all of the options on the table. Often times, the help of a trained professional can help. There are many geriatric care managers who are skilled in the art of communicating with stubborn older adults. If the situation gets dire, there are legal recourses, but those should be used only as a last resort as they are only marginally effective and come with a tremendous amount of head and heart aches.
Sarah Jennings has been taking care of others her whole life. In 2005, she moved her mother into her family home. She uses her personal experience to share with others about caring for the elderly. She currently writes on behalf of Brookdale Assisted Living.