Full disclosure: that’s my hand holding Dad’s, and the blog post below was originally published on the Ray Stone Seniors website. The article was inspired in part by my recent blog post about my experience with family communication, but I thought this had some great tips worth sharing.
With more people living longer, many of us find ourselves balancing caring for our children with caring for our parents, often, while working full-time. Family communication – with parents and siblings – can either become an obstacle to ensuring that parents and caregivers get the support they need and want, or an opportunity to deepen relationships. According to “The Elder Care Study: Everyday Realities and Wishes for Change,” 60 percent of former caregivers reported that their relationships with the elderly relative they cared for changed for the better due to the experience. The same study found that working together to support an aging parent drew some families closer, while a lack of support or help had the opposite effect.
What’s working for these families who report coping well, despite the extra work of caring for an elder? Intentional family communications aimed at fulfilling the older person’s wishes can go a long way toward turning this period of greater dependence into a period that will be remembered as a loving, if difficult, time.
Research and our experiences at Ray Stone Senior Living suggest these 5 techniques can increase the likelihood that caregivers will succeed in achieving better balance, and strengthened relationships:
- Start by putting the opinion of the elderly parent at the center of the dialogue. AARP Foundation’s “Planning Guide for Families” cautions that families “should never make a plan or interfere in the lives of their loved one without their knowledge or consent.” Don’t expect, however, to learn what your parents do and don’t want in one fell swoop; be a good listener and look for opportunities to engage them and clarify their wishes when triggering events arise, such as a conversation about a neighbor or friend who is having health problems or making changes due to aging.
- Identify a primary contact person. Kathy Quan, R.N., B.S.N., P.H.N., author of “The Everything Guide to Caring for Aging Parents” suggests that identifying a point person to act as a clearinghouse of information can help avoid miscommunication and rumor mills. That central communicator will be charged with making sure that all family members get the same information at the same time. She also suggests having a conversation about ground rules for back-and-forth exchanges, such as: ensuring that everyone is heard, limiting the length of uninterrupted comments (“speeches”), avoiding finger pointing, and not reverting to old, unhelpful family communication patterns.
- Divide duties. The Elder Care Study found that 86% of family caregivers said they receive help from other family members, but almost half added that they didn’t get as much help as they would like. Often, women feel they carry more than their fair share of responsibility, but they may not challenge this pattern out of habitual gender roles. By making a list of activities that could be supported, family members’ different abilities and resources may be more fully utilized. Expressing empathy and appreciation for siblings’ contributions also can go a long way toward fostering positive relationships – and possibly more offers of help.
- Take advantage of technology-enabled ways to communicate (but pay attention to etiquette). Many families find email an efficient way to keep everyone in the loop – not just about medical problems or changes in medication or routine, but reminiscences that may be shared in the course of the day. Email is also great for attaching documents and photos, as well as passing along greetings from Mom or Dad to other family members. However, email is a poor choice for sensitive discussions or voicing a concern or criticism. Some families also use a family website or blog to stay in touch – not just about parents, but about extended family happenings.
- Don’t forget to keep Mom and Dad informed, too. Returning to point #1, the goal of all caregiving efforts should be to honor aging parents’ wishes while keeping them safe. As medical and physical challenges increase, it can be easy to slip into conferring with medical or other professionals as if the older parents are not in the room. Insist that others still treat your Mom and Dad as if they are central, even if it can be frustrating to slow down or repeat information. After a discussion, it can be very helpful to recap it in writing in the form of a letter or note, especially if your parent has any short-term memory loss.
Caring for one’s parents as they age can be tiring, but it can be a time to honor these loved ones by giving back some of the love and support they have shown you along the way. It may even strengthen family relationships into the next generation.