My mom died in 2009 after 68 years of marriage to my dad. Dad was left to pick up the pieces of his heart and try to soldier on alone – at the age of 91. But after a few months, Dad’s doctors and I realized he couldn’t manage on his own. I gave my husband the news, and then I brought Dad home to be with us. We were blessed with Dad in our lives for three years before he died, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. Along the way I learned a few things about caring for an elderly parent. It wasn’t always easy – and I made plenty of mistakes – but it was so worth it.
Lesson #1. Let it go. Check your past hurts, failures, selfishness, anger, resentment and frustrations at the door. Start a new chapter on the day your parent moves into your home. If you can do that, your time with your parent will be easier.
Lesson #2. Be kind. Practice patience. Lots and lots of patience. You’ll be tempted to focus on how inconvenienced you are, but remember — this isn’t easy for your parent, either. We uprooted Dad from his home with literally no notice. On the day the doctor said to me, “Do you live nearby? He shouldn’t be on his own”, I helped Dad pack a bag and brought him home with me. He had no time to think about moving, no time to prepare his heart to leave the house he’d shared with mom for more than 40 years. It was inconvenient for us. It was traumatic for Dad. A bit of kindness every day can make a difference.
Lesson #3. Be an advocate. Get to know your parent’s physicians, and make sure they know you’re looking out for your parent’s interests. The best time to start laying the groundwork for all of this is while your parent is still able to make decisions on his own. I started going to doctors visits with my parents several years before Mom died. By the time Dad was on his own the doctors all knew me, and they knew I was doing my best to take care of Dad. Dad wouldn’t always hear what the doctor was saying, and he wouldn’t always ask questions. He definitely wouldn’t remember what the doctor said. I was there as his advocate to fill out paperwork, to take notes, to ask questions, and to explain it all to Dad on the trip home. I was also there to make sure the doctor’s office had correct information on Dad’s chart. Before each appointment I printed a list of Dad’s current medications, including dosages and which doctor prescribed each one, and gave it to the nurse who was updating Dad’s chart. In spite my best efforts, the information was never correct in his chart after the office transitioned to electronic record keeping. I made a point of checking each time – even if there were no changes from the previous visit – and it was never, ever correct. Not one single time. If Dad didn’t have an advocate, the errors would have gone unchecked.
Lesson #4. In case of emergency. As I mentioned above, I printed a list of Dad’s meds for each doctor’s appointment. In fact, the paper included everything I would need in case of emergency: Dad’s full name, his birth date, his insurance providers, his medical history/allergies, his list of meds, his list of doctors (including phone # and specialty), his health care POA & contact information – including where the document was on file, and whether he had a living will. I would update this list regularly and put the date at the top, and then print it on a half sheet of paper. I carried a copy in my purse. My husband kept a copy in his wallet. I gave a copy to my brother when Dad would stay with him. I also carried a copy of Dad’s health care POA in my car in case he was admitted to a new facility. It made emergencies much less stressful to have everything at hand.
Lesson #5. Be respectful, especially when you don’t want to. It’s important that you don’t boss your parent around as if he is an idiot. No matter what’s going on in your household, your parent is still a person who needs to feel like he’s loved and respected. It was hard to remember that sometimes, especially when Dad’s dementia led to an inability to track the passage of time. He moved at his own pace, and we were always running late. Instead of getting upset with Dad for something he couldn’t control, I had to learn to start getting him ready earlier if I wanted to be on time.
Lesson #6. Be honest, even when you don’t want to. I remember sitting next to Dad on the couch and ripping off the bandage of his life. He’d been with us for about ten months by that point. In one conversation I had do tell him that the doctors said he couldn’t drive any more, that he wouldn’t ever be moving back home, and that it was time to put his house on the market. To be perfectly honest, I think the conversation was harder on me than it was on him. We talked about his two cars, and he said he wanted to give one away and sell the other one. We talked about the house, and he suggested a realtor he trusted. I told him that we were happy to have him stay with us. I think he was relieved that he wouldn’t have to be alone again. Our honest conversation allowed him to help make the decisions we needed to make. By being honest with him, I showed him respect.
Lesson #7. Monitor the danger zone. The most dangerous room in the house for an older adult is the bathroom, and a baby monitor in the bathroom is invaluable. With the baby monitor we could hear Dad when he got up at night. It’s also the room where he occasionally fell and needed help immediately. Be sure to let your parent know the monitor is there — in case they ever need to call for help.
Lesson #8. Never Assume. Keep all medicines hidden away. Always. With his dementia, Dad wouldn’t remember whether he’d taken his meds. We learned to dispense them directly to him and keep them hidden the rest of the time. This goes for over-the-counter meds such as aspirin, laxatives and cough syrup, too. Better to keep them locked away than pay a trip to the ER.
Lesson #9. Ask your parent to help around the house. Just because Dad had dementia it didn’t mean he was useless. He wanted things to do, and it was good for him to have tasks – especially tasks involving fine motor skills (grasping and manipulating items). I had Dad peel potatoes or snap fresh green beans. I asked him to fold towels and his own clothes. It took a long time for him to do things, but he felt as if he was able to contribute around the house.
Lesson #10. A simple touch can make the difference. My parents were always affectionate toward each other, so it was a big change for Dad when Mom died. Many widowed seniors go days without a hug or a kiss – or any form of physical contact. I began doing little things to connect with Dad. If we were watching TV, I’d just sit next to him and hold his hand. It’s amazing how he’d brighten up with just that one small gesture. When Dad would get out of the shower, I’d put lotion on his feet, his legs, his back & his arms. It was always the high point of his day – like a mini-massage for him – and his tissue-paper-thin skin became supple and healthy again.
Lesson #11. It’s lonely out there. When Dad came to live with us we brought him to a new town. He was surrounded by strangers. His familiar social circle disappeared in an instant, and all of his old friends lived an hour away. The one place where he was welcomed with open arms (literally) was at our church. He could find fellowship and acceptance in each trip to church, and everyone was great about greeting him with hugs and handshakes. Those people who had been our church family became Dad’s church family, too. They connected with Dad at a time when he needed that connection, and helped to ease his loneliness. If your parent is still close enough for his friends to visit, encourage them to stop by. One visit from an old friend will brighten his heart for days.
Lesson #12. Get your siblings involved. Ouch. This is a hard one. Caring for a parent often falls to one child, and it’s easy to become resentful that your siblings aren’t stepping in to help. After a year of having Dad with us nearly every day, I told my brother that we needed to make a change. We swapped Dad back and forth every couple of months. It gave Dad a change of scenery – and company – and it gave us the break we needed.
Lesson #13. Be realistic. Many children make the emotional promise that they’ll never put the parent in a nursing home. Let’s be realistic. We don’t always have that choice. The reality of caring 24/7 for a parent is much more physically and emotionally exhausting than anyone ever imagines. And most of us have no medical training. How will you handle your parent’s failing health? I promised my father that I would care for him in my home as long as I could take care of his physical and medical needs. I told him that, if the day ever came, I’d put him in the best facility I could find. He had a number of short-term stays in nursing homes for rehab after hospital stays, and this gave us a chance to see what kind of care he would receive at each one. We talked about it together, even while we hoped we’d never have to make that decision, and we agreed on the nursing home we would choose.
Lesson #14. Saying good-bye. It’s strange, but I knew I had to be there when Mom died. I knew she wouldn’t want to be alone, and I was at her side when she drew her last breath. Nearly four years later I was at home in bed when Dad died in a nearby hospital. I could spend my life beating myself up because he was alone when he died, or I could let it go and realize the three years we had together while he was in my home were more important to him than that final breath. So many adult children carry a burden of disappointing their parents in the final moments, defining their lives with what-ifs and should-haves instead of cherishing good times together. Mourn your parent’s passing, but don’t let your perceived mistakes define the rest of your life. Odds are, you’re the only one who’s mad at you. Get over yourself and get on with your life. You’ve got living people who need you.
Lesson #15. Your kids are watching you. They’re watching how you deal with your aging parents. They will remember what you say and what you do. Yes, you’re inconvenienced by caring for your parent. But if every moment of your time with your parent is a cause for complaint, that’s what your kids will expect if you ever need help from them. We had some tough days with Dad, but my daughters don’t hear about that. I choose to focus on the treasured memories of our time together. Memories I would never have had if he hadn’t lived with us. I was a daughter to my dad, and I was blessed beyond measure to have him in my life and in my home.