You and your parents are getting older, and dealing with and preparing for that fact can get complicated and confusing. You may be coping with your own unique aging experience and challenges, including grown children (who may even come back to live with you!), grandchildren, and changing career paths. Perhaps you have health challenges that add to the stress of dealing with the needs of several generations.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What to Expect as Your Parents Age
- How to Cope With Your Parents Getting Older
- How to Prepare for Your Parents Getting Older
Then there are the unexpected changes associated with aging parents. The status quo of your parents being the ones in charge, independent, and self-guiding will change. How to deal with and do long-term care planning and prepare for that change will entail understanding what to expect, how to cope emotionally, and continuing to honor and respect your parents’ autonomy.
What to Expect as Your Parents Age
Of course, not every aging person follows a predictable path, but some common and accepted changes affect most people as they age. It is not unusual to have a vested interest in thinking that your aging parents will remain the same, but anticipating potential changes will help you help them.
Certain medical conditions are more likely to affect people as they age. Some of the more common medical conditions for older adults include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart conditions
- Kidney disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Hearing impairment
- Eyesight problems like glaucoma and macular degeneration
Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety aren’t an inevitable part of aging, but medical and social changes associated with aging can make people more susceptible. When these mood disorders are left untreated, they can interfere with all aspects of an aging adult’s life.
There’s a strong association between depression and medical disorders. Some medical problems can increase the risk of depression and anxiety, and mood disorders can exacerbate existing conditions. If your loved one has depression, they’re less likely to take care of themselves, which can become a cycle.
Cognitive impairment is a broad term that can include the most common type of dementia: Alzheimer’s disease. Other changes in memory and executive functioning are related to social isolation and or mental health problems. Age is the most significant risk factor for dementia. Your aging parent may or may not be diagnosed with dementia as they age, but changes in mental acuity can happen over time.
Declining mobility can result from a decrease in activity level, loss of muscle mass, problems with balance, and injuries related to a fall—more than one in four people over the age of 65 falls, sometimes with devastating consequences.
As your loved one ages, recovering from a fall can be long and arduous, depending on the severity of the injury. Increasing mobility problems lead to an increasing need for assistance at home. Rehabilitation from a broken bone can take much longer than it would for a younger person.
Social isolation and loneliness
Mandatory lockdowns during the pandemic exacerbated an already increasing problem of loneliness for many people. As people age, they often lose friends and the ability to drive, which constricts and constrains their social involvement. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of both mental health and physical health conditions, including cognitive impairment.
How to Cope With Your Parents Getting Older
Coping with your parents getting older is not a one-time or time-limited endeavor. It is a journey. Don’t be surprised to find yourself feeling sad, frustrated, confused, and overwhelmed. All of these emotions are normal. But there are some ways to approach this inevitable transition in life.
Accept your parent’s autonomy
As your parents become more dependent on you and others, it may be tempting to make decisions on their behalf. Try to resist the urge to do this. Your parents are still your parents and have the right to make their own decisions, regardless of whether you agree with them or not.
And besides, by involving your parents in decision-making, you’re more likely to get them to do the right thing. At some point, despite all of your best efforts, you may have to accept decisions you disagree with.
Just when you think you have things figured out and the situation is stable, a crisis occurs. Try not to panic, and take time to think through solutions to unexpected problems. A plan you may have put in place for one problem might need to change, which is OK.
Staying flexible means adapting to whatever your parents need and, in some cases, changing course based on their changing requests. In some cases, you won’t have much time to adapt, but there will be less stress if you already have a good plan in place for care.
In the beginning, as your parents age, it will be easy to help them with small tasks. But as time goes on, those tasks could grow into time-consuming caregiving. There’s nothing wrong with this, but be prepared with a plan when it does. You’ll need help. Start by seeking support early from family members to help you cope. Consider the idea of professional caregivers to give you respite. Educate yourself about local resources.
Stay positive even when things are sad
Anger, hostility, and frustration from your parents are most likely the result of losing independence and control. You might be sad when your parents start to decline. These feelings are legitimate and appropriate. But being sad in front of your parents probably won’t help them feel any better.
Try to stay positive and focus on strengths. Use humor at times to lighten the situation. If you are upset, find someone outside the situation to vent your feelings to.
Be kind and compassionate
Even when you feel like tearing your hair out, try and stay kind and compassionate. Resistance and anger from your parents are usually the results of the loss of autonomy. And recognize your own conflicting emotions. You may be thinking about your own aging and mortality as you cope with your aging parents.
How to Prepare for Your Parents Getting Older
You can’t prepare for everything as your parents get older, but you can do quite a bit. Many of these suggestions will decrease stress, lead to better outcomes, and keep everyone happier. As you go through the caring for aging parents checklist, you’ll see where there are gaps in preparation. Think of preparation as the foundation of care and well-being for everyone involved.
Advance care planning is the most important step you can take. And the earlier, the better because it’s likely to get much more challenging later on. Most families wait until there’s a crisis before advance planning. It will go much more smoothly if you do it when your parents have the mental capacity to make sound decisions.
Some components of advance planning are health care, financial power of attorney, and a living will. In most cases, it’s never too early to begin and complete the process of advance planning. Include information about healthcare providers and all other medical information, such as medications.
Paying for long-term care needs
As your parent ages, they may need more care. Medicare can pay for some of this, but much of it might be private pay, especially if they need assisted living. Have an open and frank discussion about their financial situation and the projected cost of care. Develop a plan for where the money will come from to pay for care. Discuss the triggers for considering in-home care or assisted living. Ask your parents what their preferences are for care should they need it.
Visit and observe
Few people like to admit they need help, and as your parents age, they may be reluctant to let you know they need assistance. Over time, conditions can deteriorate if you don’t intervene earlier. Visit as often as you can and take notice of these possible changes:
- The condition of the home. Pay attention to neglected household maintenance or yard care. Perhaps your mother was always a good housekeeper, and the house isn’t being cared for, or laundry is piling up.
- Poor hygiene. Poor hygiene could indicate difficulty with getting in and out of the shower or forgetting to bathe.
- Mobility problems. Perhaps one of your parents is falling frequently or having trouble walking. Mobility issues could be due to several different causes, including medication effects, new medical problems, or poor eyesight.
- Confusion or memory problems. If your parents start to show signs of forgetfulness or confusion, you can suggest an evaluation.
- Driving is a sensitive issue, but frequent accidents and especially getting lost are signs it might be time to discuss giving up driving.
Facilitate social interaction
You may not notice your parents becoming less social over time. If they stop driving, set up other transportation services so they can access activities they enjoy. Include your parents by planning for family events that involve other friends as well. In other words, stay engaged with your aging parents.
Keep communication open and frequent
As your parents age, communicate openly and frequently about your observations and changes. Ask what they want and need. It will be easier to bring up complex issues if you have already established a pattern of honest communication. If you haven’t talked with your parents about their aging process, it could be awkward and challenging to bring it up later.
How to Deal and Prepare for Your Parents Getting Older
Watching your parents get older is not easy. But if you plan ahead, stay calm, and have a compassionate outlook, things will go as well as they can. The unpredictability of the aging process and your conflicting emotions are part of the journey. Do what you can to stay focused, and enjoy the time you have with your parents while you can.
- “The Top 10 Most Common Chronic Diseases for Older Adults.” National Council on Aging, 2021. ncoa.org
- “Depression and Older Adults.” National Institute on Aging, 2021. nia.nih.gov
- “What is Dementia?” Centers for Disease Control and Dementia, 2021. cdc.gov