Taking care of elderly parents can be a stressful proposition. Yet it has its rewards. As our general population ages, more and more of us will deal with this challenge. Finding a balance between their needs and yours is the optimal solution.
As I write this blog, I am sitting on the terrazzo floor of terminal B in the DFW airport. The terminal is not usually so crowded, but several flights have been canceled today and the remnants of the debacle are deposited in the seating areas along the corridor.
I helped facilitate a conference this past weekend in Dallas, and am taking a couple of days to fly home to see my father. He turned 81 this year and is doing well cognitively, but has encountered several mobility issues during the past few months. He is no longer able to lift his arms higher than his shoulders, and he shuffles as he walks. Last year he fell four times, once breaking two ribs in the process. Yet he is fiercely independent and has no intention of coming to live with me or my siblings. To my dismay, he still drives and “fixes” things around the house. Reluctantly, he has agreed not to attempt anything involving ladders, but I have not convinced him to part with power tools. Although we have discussed moving my 87 year-old aunt into an assisted living home, his tone becomes hostile if I try to turn the conversation around to him.
He has furnished me with a to-do list for this trip via email. There are three main items that he wishes to address.
- Find a contractor to roof the house.
- Fix/Install a heater in the bathroom.
- Remove area rug from den and install linoleum flooring.
This will all need to be accomplished in a day and a half. I will also be required to go through his tax and medical records.
Reviewing the tax records will be relatively easy. He has been using the same accountant for years, so they will have winnowed through his shoebox of papers, receipts and tattered envelopes by now, and will have kept what they need, and shredded the rest. Finding trustworthy and competent help for distant parents can be a big stress reliever for a care-giving child.
With respect to his medical records, I will need to do a bit more. As has been done for my past several visits, Dad has set up a series of appointments with his doctors. We will see his general care physician, cardiologist, rheumatologist, and various other specialists in succession. My role will be to listen to their diagnoses and dictate my prescription to each for Dad’s healthcare. Later in the evening, I will explain what they said in terms that Dad can understand and write out his treatment plans on the yellow tablet that he keeps in the drawer by his bed.
Taking care of Dad can be stressful. Since Mom died ten years ago, Dad has been reliant on me for all of his major life decisions. Although one of my brothers moved back home, Dad resists his help. Because I am the one with an advanced technical degree, I am the only one he will trust with negotiating his health care and finances.
I feel guilty each time I leave him to go back to my job in DC, but there is no way that I could find a comparable job in the small town where I was raised. Life is hard in an oil field community, and opportunities to apply technical training are rare. Dad knows this and does not begrudge my opportunities in the big city. Still I know that he would rather I spend more time with him.
It is time to board the plane, and I am directed to fall in line behind a little old lady with big red hair—this is Texas after all. I wonder where her kids are and how they care for her. Living life involves many difficult decisions, and helping your parents to live theirs involves many more. By sharing life’s challenges with each other, you can manage the balance, but it requires that both parties be willing to acknowledge the needs of the other.
This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.