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PRIMETIME for aging parents

By Meredith Moss

Cox News Service

Thanksgiving is an ideal time to talk turkey. Especially where the elderly are concerned.

Though it isn't always easy, initiating a conversation about the future when the family is gathered for a holiday weekend may be more important than the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.

"Thanksgiving is a perfect time to do it because everyone in the family is together," says Virginia Morris, author of the book "How to Care for Aging Parents."

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Topics in the revised edition of her 700-page resource book range from "home care vs. nursing home" and "caregiving from a distance" to "sibling conflicts" and "redefining the parent/child roles."

But an all-important first step, says Morris, is a simple conversation.

"People often think it's a topic that's dreary and dreadful," Morris says, "but what you're saying is 'I love you, I want to be there for you, and I want to know what you want me to do for you so that you have the best care possible.'"

Morris warns it shouldn't be a matter of having everyone gang up on the parent.

"You don't want your parent to feel that a committee has been formed to attack him," she says. "You might want to bring it up in advance or do it one-on-one."

Children in their 50s and 60s, she advises, might initiate the subject in terms of their own planning.

"I signed these documents recently and it made me wonder whether you've signed them and where you keep them," a daughter might say to her mom. Or "Dad, I've been putting money in a retirement account and I'm not sure how to know when I have enough, and I wondered how you did this and whether you feel you have enough financially?"

If a parent balks, Morris says, at least the seed has been planted and the discussion can be revisited later.

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Concern about aging parents is widespread.

"The boomers are deep into it now, they're in the trenches," she says. "I was in a dressing room at Bloomingdale's the other day and two people in another dressing room started discussing aging family members. One had her mother, an aunt and another aunt -- all in their 90s. They were worried about everything from where they should live to end-of-life decisions and care."

The most important thing families can do, says Morris, is to prepare and plan as much as possible. That means starting those all-important exchanges that can ensure an up-to-date will, durable power of attorney or power of attorney for health care.

It's best to have the dialogue before problems arise, she says.

While conversations about the future may feel frightening and scary at first, they may turn out to be intimate and reassuring for everyone. That's what happened when Morris decided to practice what she was preaching and have a conversation with her own mother, who is now 78 and has lung disease.

"I've had a lot of talks with her and it has made us very close," says Morris. "These conversations have gone in so many different directions and have made her feel safe around me."

Morris urges those in the midst of caring for an elderly parent to take advantage of available help, including support groups that will make them feel they're not alone and may offer excellent tips on coping.

These days, she says, caring for elderly parents is much more complex, with people living longer and with severe disabilities and complicated illnesses.

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"Even a generation ago, people weren't caring for parents coming home with tubes, or needing dialysis," she says. "The level of care can be incredible."

"People need to set limits and understand what they can and cannot do," she advises. "Decide what you can do and then feel proud of what you are doing."

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