So many aging parents are not facing their own health issues realistically. When asked, “how is your health these days?”, they say “Great”. And when you look into their health truthfully, you find that they have several chronic health conditions for which they are taking medication every day. And there are more health problems looming besides those they admit to having. They’re being medicated for all of them. Is this a problem?
It can be because failure to recognize your aging parents’ health risk is a recipe for disaster. The more there is going on with them, the more likely you are to face a health crisis. Financial advisors say “failure to plan is a plan to fail”. I think that applies to health issues as well. For example, doctors tell your aging parent to change their diets if they carry too much weight. But they don’t. They are not planning for the health risks of obesity. And eventually it catches up with them in the form of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc. Their health declines, or fails while you watch it happen. That call in the middle of the night is from the paramedics. You rush there and wait anxiously in the hospital emergency department.
In a conversation with a client in her late 70s, I asked about her health. She described it as “great”. She did admit that she had high cholesterol, arthritis, a nervous problem, and a serious joint impairment that disabled her from lifting her right arm. She’s right-handed. She was also going to need another knee replacement soon. She was taking several medications. She lived alone. At her son’s request, I asked her about what planning she had done for a possibility that at some point later, she might need to change her living situation to receive care for health problems. Any one of them could possibly cause her to lose independence. “I don’t need to worry about that”, she said angrily. “I might not need to even think about it for the next 20 years”. I found her comment rather sad, but not atypical for people who are older, though doing fine at home alone for the moment, They do not accept that down the road, they may need help with their daily activities.
The Effect Of Denial On Families
When an aging parent approaching 80 years, living with several chronic health conditions, refuses to plan ahead for possible declining independence, the burden falls on families. The aging parent refuses to accept the idea that anything could go wrong. Of course in their own minds, they will stay exactly the same for the next 20 years. The truth is that most of us will not be able to manage totally independently to age 100. In the example above, her son could get that call in the middle of the night and he will resent it. He’s trying to prevent being ill prepared. We’re working on dealing with the future more realistically with him and his mom.
This example is one we see repeatedly at AgingParents.com, where we consult with families of elders. The denial works until the inevitable emergency happens. Then the family members scramble to address getting care, what to do with Mom or Dad who can’t live alone anymore and how the aging parent will pay for what they need. It is extremely stressful being forced to make these decisions under pressure with no advance planning.
How To Approach The Aging Parent In Denial
Many 80 year olds with multiple health issues who think they’re in “great health” are fooling themselves. Family members who would be called on to help them after a fall, a stroke or other event must step up whether they want to or not. It is unwise to argue with your aging parent about what might happen down the road. They will likely get angry with you and refuse to face the truth. It is an emotional issue, not subject to your logic. Don’t start with “It’s for your own good”. They don’t believe you. Rather, start with speaking about how you are worried about their…(pick any condition they have or all of the conditions), and bring up how a crisis would put a huge burden on YOU. Describe how you would have to drop everything and rush to help with no idea how to provide for them. Let the aging parent know that putting this burden on you would not be fair.
What To Avoid
When your aging parent gets mad at you for raising the subject of possible decline in independence in their future, don’t take it personally. They’re not angry at you, directly, though it sounds like that. They are angry because deep down they probably realize you’re right and they are fearful of what you have brought up. Avoid getting angry back at them. That will not help.
It won’t be useful trying to argue with them and dismiss their statement about how great their health is, despite medical diagnoses to the contrary. That’s using reason and of course, reason does not work against their fears of losing control over their lives. Instead, acknowledge that this is a difficult subject and maybe right now is not the best time for them to talk about it. But don’t stop there. Insist that they allow you to discuss it next week, next month or at a time soon. Mark your calendar and bring it up again. You may have to repeat this process, especially with a stubborn aging parent. You can eventually get through to them, particularly if they have a friend or relative who does take a fall, have a heart attack or stroke or need to move to a seniors’ community to get the help they need. Use that friend as an example when you can.
No one wants to see themselves as needing help or having a condition that causes loss of independence. We value independence in our culture to an extreme. It is frightening for an aging loved one to consider this and have to plan for the possibility of needing care from others every day. But when families get blow back from an aging parent for asking about it, and you give up because you don’t want them to get mad at you, that is not a solution. Aim for these goals:
- Find out what your parent would want if they did need daily or frequent care
- Find out what resources they have available to pay for things like home care, assisted living, or other living arrangement where care is available.
- Find out their preferences as to where they want to live. Is moving closer to family an option? Do they prefer local resources instead?
- Be sure, above all, to look at their estate planning documents to see that they are up to date, and learn what how they have planned with their estate planning lawyer for the possible need for future care. That possibility is described in any well drafted trust. It may say something about assets being used primarily for their care and maintenance.
- If aging parents have a financial manager or advisor, get written permission to communicate with them. Raise the issue of a plan for possible future care and how resources would be directed to implementing it.
Doing all these sometimes unpleasant tasks isn’t going to work if you are not committed to it. But it is the best thing you can do for yourself if you are an adult child of an aging loved one with the usual health issues. The consequence of doing nothing would likely fall on you in the form of sudden and avoidable high stress. No one needs more stress!