Caring for Aging Parents

  • By:  David McDonald

“Mom always liked you best.” This comment from Tom Smothers was incorporated into nearly every Smothers Brothers comedy routine. Tom Smothers would make this complaint to his older brother, Dick, which would inevitably lead to many minutes of funny dialog between the often combative siblings.

One of the topics they never discussed was how the two brothers would handle the challenges of aging parents. This was, after all, a comedy show. And, frankly, the question “What are we going to do with Mom and Dad?” is not very funny.

Sometimes, often by default, one sibling takes charge of all of the decision-making. For some families this can be very welcomed and appreciated by the other siblings. Sometimes, however, the “in charge” sibling is looked at with disdain and considered to be power- or money-hungry, or manipulative.

In my family, my brother Ken took charge, and it was a godsend. I am the youngest of four brothers, all of us living in four different parts of the country: California, Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Our parents retired to Florida, first to a senior community. But when my mother forgot she left the water running in the stopped-up bathroom sink and flooded out my parent’s condo and the one beneath, the facility management made it clear that it was time for them to move to an assisted living facility.

Ken, who lived in Florida, was given Power of Attorney. He took care of the sale of their condo and paying their bills, as well as finding a facility closer to his family in Ocala. The facility also had an adjacent nursing home, which was very convenient when my dad’s health worsened. Recently at our family reunion in Nags Head, we boys all raised a toast to my brother Ken. His efforts were much appreciated by the rest of us during my parents’ final years.

It is not always this easy. As a professional mediator, I have helped to facilitate many family discussions over the years with siblings sharing diverse opinions on which care is best for Mom/Dad. The sibling rivalry that existed when they were young comes into focus again as they debate the caretaking plan. Most aging parents want to stay in their own home for as long as possible, and this is generally supported by most siblings. But usually some scary event will precipitate a call to action: a parent wandering outside, a fall, a burner left on, money being withdrawn from bank accounts, or several mysterious credit card charges from QVC. Somebody takes action. That sibling will either be viewed as a savior or an ogre depending upon how those rivalries from childhood were handled many years before. 

I recently helped facilitate the decision-making between three siblings concerning the care of their house-bound mother in Virginia. The oldest sister lived in another country. The youngest sibling managed a restaurant out of state. The middle sibling lived with his mother (and his girlfriend) in the home his mother had resided in for years. Also in the mix of opinions were an uncle and a grandmother. It seemed as though everyone, with the exception of Mom, saw the sibling living at home as a freeloader. However, this son saw himself (and his girlfriend) as the savior, the warrior, and the round-the-clock caretakers for his mother.

When I visited Mom at home a few times, I learned how grateful she was that the her son and his girlfriend were there to assist her with meals, bathing, cleaning, maintaining the home, grocery shopping, taking mom to endless visits to doctors/therapists, which seemed like a 24/7 job. Maybe they were not needed 24/7, as Mom was content to watch TV upstairs in her bedroom, but they were always facing the pressure of being on-call. They were burned out!

After a conference call with the three siblings and several subsequent phone and e-mail discussions, the family members all signed a contract agreeing to the duties and continued living arrangements for mother (and their brother). They agreed to hire a part-time professional caregiver to give their brother a break and allow him some time to work at his job and have free time with his girlfriend, helping to improve their strained relationship.

With most of these tough cases, there is plenty of old baggage lingering in the background. One sibling taking charge can stir up the hornet’s nest of many years of torment long ago. Memories of distrust, bullying, and perhaps favoritism can lead to a competition versus collaboration concerning Mom or Dad’s care. At times like these it may be critical to employ the services of an experienced mediator to make certain all voices are heard, including those of the aging parent, and that all options are explored. 

In addition to enlisting the services of a professional mediator, other useful resources for caregivers include:

• Virginia Department of Social Services: 1-800-552-3431 www.dss.virginia.gov

• Virginia Division for the Aging: 1-800-552-3402 www.vda.virginia.gov/aaalist.asp

• Senior Navigator: 1-866-393-0957 www.VirginiaNavigator.org/VF/Home

• Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia: 757-461-9481 www.ssseva.org

• Caregivers’ Support Group: 757-422-1292

David McDonald is president of the Mediation Center, which offers family mediation of all types. For more information call: 757-624-6666, visit www.mediationhamptonroads.com. 

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