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The big switch: Caring and preparing as parents age

Wednesday - 5/28/2014, 5:59am  ET

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The first step in caring for aging parents is the conversation -- and it's never too early. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON -- In the beginning, children look to parents for care and comfort. They rely on them for protection and guidance as they navigate into adulthood.

But as parents age, roles reverse -- the cared-for becomes the caregiver. During this transition, important and often difficult conversations must be had as a family.

The first step in caring for aging parents is the conversation -- and it's never too early, says Virginia Morris, author of "How to Care for Aging Parents," now in its third edition. But it also can be one of the more difficult steps. So, rather than a single conversation, it's several.

Some ways to approach the subject:

  • Ask them directly.

  • Approach from the side by asking for advice: "I'm looking at my finances and saving for the future; how did you do that?"

  • Talking about someone else's life: "When Aunt Mary moved into that housing facility, what did you think? What would you want to do if you were in her shoes?"

"I think the most important thing when you talk to your parents is to listen to them. Rather than coming to the conversation with answers, sort of ask them what they want, what their goals are," says Morris.

With the Internet and quicker access to information and technology, parts of that process are easier.

Caregivers can now video-chat with parents and easily find information. Aging-in - place technologies have advanced, says Morris, pointing toward anything from pill dispensers to health monitors to keep vital signs in check. At the same time, people are living longer; baby boomers are aging and elder fraud and accessibility to technology create new challenges.

But while change is constant, some things never change.

"The technology is really growing right now. But at the end of the day, the things your parent needs are kind of the same. And the worries of this job really haven't changed. 'Is he lonely? Is he OK?'" says Morris.

"We're all dealing with similar financial legal issues, so while the technology can help, it hasn't completely changed the dynamic."

As caregivers, it's important for children to prepare themselves as well. Handling emotions of guilt and frustration, along with legalese and paying for healthcare, are common concerns. Planning for the care of an aging parent while balancing children and a career can be tricky business.

"The question I am most frequently asked is, 'My parent needs to ______ and he won't. He needs to move out of his house, or stop shoveling his sidewalk, or sign these documents or stop driving.' We, as the adult children, sort of know what they should do, but they don't want to do it," says Morris.

"It's a really fine line between protecting your parent and helping your parent, and actually backing off and respecting them and knowing that they have their own wishes."

To make the process easier, Morris says, it's vital for caregivers to be honest with themselves and ask for help. Accepting limits and setting boundaries around those limits keeps the process realistic. Waiting until the last minute to ask questions and seek answers will only make it more stressful.

And finally, an important and often forgotten step is taking care of yourself.

Ten survival tips from "How to Care for Aging Parents"

  1. Assess: If you're racing frantically, stop. Using the rational part of your brain, ask yourself what's really important and what can be deleted from your to-do list. Prioritize and once you take an item off your list, let it go.

  2. Organize: Find important documents and make sure you have a list of doctors, lawyers, your parents' medical history, etc.

  3. Plan: Be a step ahead and get important documents signed now. Have a family meeting and talk with your parents about their future.

  4. Take care of yourself: From time to time, step away from it all. Eat well, exercise, rest and see friends. If you take care of yourself, you can better take care of your parent.

  5. Get help: You shouldn't do it all by yourself and you shouldn't have to. Find community services and get others involved -- and do it before you think you'll need it.

  6. Communicate: It's important to keep the lines of communication open. Not only between your parents, but with the doctors, aides and siblings.

  7. Show respect: Listen to your parents and their needs. They are still an adult and your parents.

  8. Dump the guilt: You're doing a good job, so, enough of that.

  9. Prepare for the end: While most focus on keeping your parent alive, make sure you ask your mom or dad what they want -- time, mobility, comfort, etc. Their goals are the most important.

  10. Be spontaneous: Do something fun with your parents that they don't expect. Create memories that don't have to do with doctors.

WTOP's Rachel Nania contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

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