Elderly Care – Making Decisions for Parents
It can be strange and uncomfortable when we suddenly find ourselves having to take responsibility for our parents. These people, often, took care of us when we were tiny, taught us most of what we needed to know about the world, made decisions about where we lived, our education and our health. They helped us through teenage difficulties and gave advice (which we might or might not have taken) when we were launched on the world as young adults. The reality of beginning to make decisions about their care, their health and even their financial affairs is a shock even if we know it is likely to happen.
Every family’s situation is different. I have come across so many varied circumstances. Children, siblings, nieces and nephews may all be called to take on responsibilities and decisions, sometimes formally, sometimes less so. The weight of responsibility is usually heavy as no-one wants this. The fact that our elderly relatives need such help is sad, and the fact that we are the people called on to provide it reminds us that we are now real grown-ups. There is no-one else to turn to, no-one to tell us if we are getting it right or not. We are those people now.
My own experience is that, after many years of hoping for the best, the tables turned and these responsibilities became mine quite quickly, although in our case we were lucky in the sense that my mother’s disabilities were mainly physical and we could discuss things. She was just too unwell to deal with practicalities herself. Indeed, after a while she was too unwell to think about things much, even though she had the capacity to do so.
I have stopped asking myself whether I got it right or not. Not because this is futile (of course most of the time it is) but because I believe there is no such thing as definite right and wrong in these situations.
Should we have given in and sought residential care sooner?
Well, perhaps this would have had a good outcome but then we would have wondered if we could have kept Mother at home longer. Perhaps waiting until we had no choice was the right thing. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Did we choose the right home?
In the end the right home chose us, as I had to make a quick choice from a very short list. My mother was never going to be happy anywhere that wasn’t her own home so we had to live with imperfection: yes, I think she was in the right place but no, she wasn’t really happy because she wasn’t at home. Nothing could be done about that.
Did I visit enough? Too much?
This is a difficult one. I spent as much time as I possibly could with my mother, both before and after she had to be cared for away from her home. Naturally, this is very comforting to me now but I am also dealing with the consequences of having put this before my work and even my career. My view is that work can be found again but when people die they are lost to us for ever. On the other hand, money is necessary and most of us have to support families and homes, or at least ourselves. It’s difficult to strike a balance; I think most people muddle through and it’s likely no-one feels they have got it right.
There are so many other things to be decided on or worked through:
Do we need to take over their affairs formally?
Sell their house?
What about healthcare decisions?
If they are not happy, should something be changed or a complaint made?
Should we go on holiday?
What about Christmas?
I am pleased to say that last Christmas was perfect for me. I visited Mother and Christmas dinner with all the trimmings was served to us in her room. We had crackers, party hats and lots of presents. I stayed a couple of hours. That was enough for her. But if I’d had young children I would have had to make a different decision.
However hard we try, we will never feel we have got it all right. In fact we might feel that we go from getting one thing wrong to getting another thing wrong. There is inevitable guilt. It comes with the territory. I wish I had known this sooner.
Taking responsibility and making decisions for our elderly family members is an adventure into the unknown, like parenting, except that:
It’s not something anyone wants to do;
The realisation it’s happening tends to come with sadness, not joy;
There are no books about how to do it;
It’s not much talked about.
One thing that really helped me was to seek out friends and acquaintances who’d had these experiences and to ask them how it was. And to walk (figuratively) hand in hand with a couple of people going through the same thing at the same time.
It helps not to feel alone. It helps to know you will feel you are failing. It helps to know there will be guilt, self-doubt and worry. Those things are part of the journey.