Caring for aging parents is a massive undertaking. Not only is the task itself hard, but when your loved one is living with dementia (or any number of conditions that can affect mental health or memory), it can make communication extremely difficult.
Maybe things are starting to change for your aging parent. Whether you expect those changes — or you’re just unprepared for how they make us feel — it’s important that family caregivers do not make these life changes even harder by saying something insensitive. Because the reality is, your aging parent knows things are changing, too. And because you’re only human, anger from frustration can often get the best of you. So it’s important to monitor your own behavior to avoid unintentionally hurting your loved one.
1. “You already told me that.”
Alzheimer’s and dementia affect an estimated 5.7 million Americans. Many have mild cognitive impairment (MCI) before they're officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's or related dementia. Many more have memory loss from a traumatic brain injury or other health conditions.
What if your loved one is dealing with a progressive loss of cognitive abilities that have a significant impact on daily life? Imagine how hard it would be to live that way, to be essentially trapped in your own body, painfully aware of your diminishing faculties. We often assume older adults with dementia are "blissfully ignorant" of their forgetfulness, but we cannot know for sure how they feel as their brain betrays them.
Err always on the side of compassion. If Dad has told you the same story 100 times, be grateful he is still able to tell you that story. Validate his communication. If necessary, redirect the conversation, but never make him feel bad for something happening to his brain and body that he cannot control.
Telling them when they repeat themselves may only make them insecure about sharing something with you in the future, for fear that they’ve already said it.
2. “Are you just going to be miserable all the time?”
Depression, loneliness, isolation and grief can keep aging parents in sour moods. A recent UCSF study suggested its participants who were aged 60 and older who reported feeling lonely, were at higher risk – 59 percent more than their more social counterparts – of mental and physical decline on account of loneliness.
At their age, your parents have probably experienced a greater number of losses of loved ones (friends and family alike). But now they’re also experiencing the losses of autonomy, independence and dignity that come with diagnoses of dementia, incontinence, Parkinson’s or other health issues. These losses, compounded over time, can make everyday life difficult and overwhelming. Expecting our parents to “just get over it” or “see the bright side” is not realistic, nor is it kind. It’s dismissive.
While you can’t change the reality of their situation, you can change the way you make your parent feel about their coping mechanisms or the way they're responding to these challenges. Hug Dad more often. Let Mom cry or talk about the things that make her sad while you hold her hand. Let them have their bad days, and be present and supportive through them, instead of making them feel they're failing.
Sometimes it’s just better to listen.
3. “Why aren’t you using that cane I got for you?”
Once we see Mom struggling on the steps or Dad hesitating along the path to the bathroom, we fear our aging parents will have a fall— and for a good reason. One in four seniors 65 and up will fall each year, and every 11 seconds, a senior goes to the ER after a fall, says the National Council on Aging.
Family caregivers must be mindful not to say or do something that makes an aging parent feel inadequate or incapable. While your concerns about a fall are valid, you should not force your parent into using a mobility aid. Forcing the issue will often only result in your parent pushing back.
Present the option of a cane or walker in a tone of concern and compassion, instead of asking a patronizing question like “Why aren’t you using that helpful thing I got you?” Your goal is to empower Dad’s independence through a tool that supports his balance, not make him feel small for “disobeying” you.
Remember, he is still your parent. Be kind and understanding as he struggles with balance, validating his frustration and pain. Criticizing him or pushing him into immediate use may actually make him resist or ignore your efforts to help.
4. “You shouldn’t be driving.”
Older adults know that diminishing faculties may eventually cost them their driving license, and the freedom and autonomy it provides. Perhaps no life transition is more difficult than losing the ability to drive. Think of how helpless you feel when your car is in the shop for a day or two. Now imagine that car is never coming back from the shop, and you now must rely on others to do the simplest daily tasks like grocery shopping or monthly necessities like haircuts and doctor’s appointments.
Almost two million seniors over 65 rarely or never leave their homes, and six million more are “semi-homebound” (relying on others for transportation assistance), says this 2015 article from the New York Times. And when these homebound seniors are already dealing with grief and depression as mentioned before, being confined to home can undoubtedly contribute to an increased risk of loneliness and isolation.
It’s important to empathize. Put yourself in your Dad's shoes before you speak, and find a way to work together on replacing that lost the ability to drive independently with alternatives. Rule out all the other possible reasons he could be having trouble driving (medication side effects, for example) before you make a decision based on one wrong turn (provided it was a harmless one).
When you must have the hard conversation about giving up the keys, come prepared, and do have alternatives ready to suggest. This will show Dad your support of him continuing to be engaged in his community and still doing as many tasks as he can independently, minus the car.
5. “You can’t live alone anymore.”
People want to age in place. Per the AARP, Nearly 90 percent of people over age 65 want to stay in their home for as long as possible, and 80 percent believe their current residence is where they will always live.
So threatening to remove your aging parent from the house could be frightening and cause even more insecurity. However, it's all about the approach: instead of coming in as a dictator, present your concerns to Mom. "I'm worried about you" reads very differently than "It's not safe for you to live alone," or "You can't live alone anymore without help." You don't want to make Mom feel inadequate.
If you and your family are growing increasingly skeptical of your aging parent's ability to age at home, it is critical you consider home care services and avoid uprooting your loved one if that's at all possible. Home care is a practical solution that provides personalized care for aging seniors within the comfort of home.