Portrait of the smiling elderly woman, sitting outside

Growing old is hard. As our elders grow older and become frailer, they may increasingly need help with the tasks of everyday life. But just because they need more help and may become less capable as they age, it doesn’t mean our parents and other elderly loved ones have any less of a need for a sense of autonomy, independence, and control over their own lives.

It’s not easy to care for an elderly loved one while still respecting his or her need for independence. Many caretakers attempt to switch roles with an elderly parent, and end up becoming too pushy. It’s important for family caretakers and mental health professionals alike to speak to the elderly in a non-threatening way, so that they feel their needs, wants, and feelings are being respected even as they get the help they need.

Allow elders to take an active role in making choices for their own care, and try to work together to help them achieve a more manageable lifestyle, rather than simply imposing upon your elder your ideas about what’s best for him or her.

Respect Your Elder’s Boundaries

As an individual formally educated in clinical mental health counseling would inform you, a big part of helping
elders get the care they need is helping them to see their issues in a way that respects their boundaries.   In fact, the key to any successful, healthy relationship is a mutual respect of boundaries. But it can be hard for adult children and other relatives to even know where boundaries are in a caregiving relationship with an elderly loved one, because boundaries can become very blurred in a family relationship, especially a relationship between a parent and a child. Many caregivers become so concerned for their loved one that they fail to consider the loved one’s needs and desires.

When speaking to an elder about issues of care, always show respect and don’t try to impose your own will or ideas on the person. Offer options and present the discussion as a negotiation — because that’s exactly what it should be. Allow the elder to continue doing what he or she is capable of doing.

How to Talk to an Elder About Changes

As people grow older, they often need to make changes in their living arrangements, sometimes moving out of a cherished family home or giving up the freedom and independence that comes with driving themselves from place to place. Medical changes will occur, end-of-life plans will need to be made, and finances may require more supervision.

Bring up concerns about changing living arrangements, finances, health care, end-of-life plans, or other changes that need to be made at a time when your elder is calm and you have plenty of time to talk over the matter without being interrupted. Don’t be aggressive or judgmental, but state your concerns.

Avoid making blanket pronouncements about what the elderly person is capable of, or what they should do. Give the person the chance to express their own feelings or wishes about their changing needs. A statement such as “I worry about you living alone. Where do you do see yourself living in the future?” will get you further than one like, “You can’t live alone in your house anymore, you need to sell it and move in with me.” I am reminded of this frequently as my own mother struggles to find the place she wants to call home.

When talking to an elder about potential changes, make sure to listen to what he or she has to say. Your elder will have fears, worries, and concerns of his or her own. You should do your best to respect the elder’s decisions, as long as his or her needs are met. If changes are necessary and your elder doesn’t respond positively right away, don’t be afraid to let the matter drop and revisit the conversation at a later time, when he or she has had time to think things over.

Tap Your Elder’s Support Network

Adult children and other relatives are often responsible for the majority of an elderly person’s care. But there are plenty of resources available to both elders and their caretakers. Look for senior care resources in your area, and if you’re caring for an elderly person, don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.

In addition to government and other institutional resources, help may be available from other family members and friends. Ask friends and neighbors to help with chores like driving a parent to a doctor’s appointment, picking up prescriptions, cleaning, or mowing the lawn. Remember that your goal in caring for your elder is to meet his or her needs, not micromanage every aspect of his or her life.

When it comes to caring for an elderly person, it can be hard to strike a balance between giving what help is needed and being too overbearing. Remember that most elderly people are aware that they need help. Try to treat the elder in your life with as much respect as possible, and he or she will be most likely be grateful for your assistance.


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