A Caregiver’s Perspective: How to Care for Elderly Parents

How to Care for Elderly Parents

While growing old is a part of life, most of us are never prepared to care for an elderly parent. Yet there comes a time in most adult’s lives when they realize their mother or father is becoming more dependent. It's normal to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and stuck, knowing that you must take action to keep things from getting worse.

Navigating the waters of aging and declining health is never easy. But it can be even harder if your relationship with your parent has become challenging — or if they are becoming increasingly stubborn with age.

So, how can you stay patient and supportive while caring for an elderly parent who might be excessively demanding? What if they are irrational, or plainly refuse to cooperate? These tips might help.

Is my mom or dad experiencing a cognitive decline?

First, before you decide that your mother or father is just being “impossible,” consider the underlying cause of their stubbornness. What is it that’s making them so challenging in the first place? Research suggests that up to 20% of people over the age of 65 meet the criteria for mild cognitive decline. And 1 in 7 Americans age 71 and over have some form of dementia, a neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to think, remember, and reason as normal.

These changes can be incredibly frightening for the person going through them, which is why many seniors become irritable and even angry – it’s because they’re scared. They’re forgetful, overwhelmed, and now have to rely on others for help.  If your elderly parent is experiencing cognitive challenges, you’ll have to approach your relationship with compassion and kindness. Unfortunately, a person with dementia won’t always be able to talk reasonably about the situation at hand, meaning that pointless debate won’t get you anywhere.

Instead of wasting energy arguing with your elderly parent or correcting them about minor points, which will only end up frustrating you both, try using verbal and nonverbal cues to provide safety and assurance. This can be as simple as softening your facial expressions (i.e., smiling a little) and speaking in a slow, clear, and reassuring tone.

Approach each encounter with an open mind. Listen to their concerns and validate what they are saying, even if it seems incoherent or off-topic. Like any other person, older adults who don’t feel heard or understood will often grow increasingly irritable, withdrawn, and depressed. You can ease any tensions by acknowledging their worries and fears.

Choose your battles.

One of the biggest challenges of being a caregiver — especially to an elderly parent — is learning that there are things beyond your control. For example, maybe your 83-year-old mother who has arthritis refuses to use a walker, and you know she’s at risk of falling. Or perhaps you’ve been trying to get your senior father to downsize or declutter his apartment for months, and he just won’t budge.

Unless the issue at hand is directly threatening their health or livelihood, sometimes you must accept that your parent still has the right to make his or her own choices, even if you disagree with them. In the case of a stubborn mom or dad, choosing your battles wisely means spending time and energy only on the things that matter, and not fighting with them over every little problem that comes up.

Draw clear boundaries.

Demanding or irrational parents can sometimes put their adult children in stressful, uncomfortable, or even financially dangerous situations. For instance, you might find out that your elderly father wants to leave his nursing home, which may be his only safe and viable living arrangement. Or maybe your elderly mother wants constant attention, and her frequent demands are starting to affect your work and home life.

Coping with a demanding elderly parent can be frustrating and draining, but establishing clear boundaries may help. 

Make it clear that some of the things that they are requesting are non-negotiables – like issues having to do with health and safety.

Setting boundaries is healthy and can have numerous benefits for your relationship with your aging parent. For one, they give you and your parent a clear roadmap to follow, instead of challenging each other endlessly about the same topic. And they set the ground for honest communication, too.

Keep in mind, however, that ground rules and boundaries might not be the as effective if your parent has dementia or other cognitive issues that affect their memory. In this case, the best thing you can do is to reach out to a professional, like a therapist or a geriatric social worker, who can help you review your options.

Focus on independence, choices, and solutions - not problems.

Whether your parent has always been difficult, or their behavior has changed recently, nine times out of ten, bickering over the same issue won’t get either of you anywhere.

Think about it. You are certain that your elderly mother needs to move to an assisted living facility because she’s already fallen twice. She vehemently disagrees with you and balks at the idea of losing her independence. The conversation goes on for hours, and things get more and more heated until you decide you don’t want to fight with your aging mother – or she walks away in anger.

What then? Do you change your mind and allow her to continue living by herself? Probably not. Instead, you’ll bring up the conversation again the next time you see her, and the cycle will repeat itself.

Break the pattern of pointless arguing by focusing on solutions, not problems. Instead of dwelling on how unsafe it is for your mother to live alone, address her concern of losing her freedom by giving her meaningful options for retaining some of her independence.

Harnessing your loved one’s independence and choices, vs. demanding a specific outcome, can help them have more agency in their decisions. If you don’t feel it’s safe for your mother to live alone, give her the option of having a caregiver come to her home, or wearing a personal emergency response pendant. That way she’s choosing a solution instead of feeling like she’s being dictated to.

Evidence suggests that giving seniors a sense of control can help them work through some of the negative emotions associated with aging. In fact, a 2019 research study found that older adults who feel like they have more control over their lives have greater well-being and better mental health than those who don’t.

Reach out for help.

Whether you are caring for a parent with dementia at home or at a nursing home, you should know that there are many resources available to help you relieve some of the burden associated with being a caregiver.

The AARP, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and the Alzheimer’s Association are just a few of the many organizations that provide assistance and education to family members and caregivers. The U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator is another resource to help you find help close to home. You should also talk to your parent’s doctor for help finding resources in your area.

Self-care for Caregivers.

Also, know that being a caregiver for someone you know and love can be extremely exhausting, overwhelming on both our mental and physical health. According to a nationwide study published in the Journals of Gerontology, researchers found that family caregivers who report higher levels of stress have poorer health outcomes and are more likely to die prematurely.

Caregiver burnout can lead to anxiety and depression. It’s never selfish to take time for yourself or to share the responsibilities with other family members. As a matter of fact, practicing self-care when you are a caregiver is critical for your well-being and your ability to provide care for your senior parent. Try practicing self-compassion often by reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can. And extend yourself the same kindness and sympathy that you give to the people around you.

Watch for signs of burnout, such as irritability, loss of appetite, anxiety, sleep difficulty, and trouble concentrating. You may want to talk to a mental health professional to process these and other emotions that come with taking care of an aging parent. Or you also could consider signing up for a caregiver support group to connect with other people going through the same situation.

If you are a full-time caregiver to an elderly parent or parent-in-law, respite care services can alleviate some of the pressure. Respite care provides short-term assistance for primary caregivers. It can be arranged for just a few hours while you run errands or take time to look after your own needs, or for several days or weeks. And in most cases, Medicare and Medicaid may cover at least some of the costs of respite services.

The bottom line.

Taking care of an elderly parent is no easy task. Aging can make people feel frightened about suddenly losing control and independence. Other times, the negative behaviors may be new, and could actually be a sign of a change in mental health or cognition.   

If your parent is not experiencing mental health or cognitive concerns, you may want to have an honest conversation where you respectfully outline the boundaries that you feel are necessary to continue having a positive caregiving relationship. Try not to frame things in punitive terms or talk down to them. Instead, explain how their actions affect the entire family and any potential negative consequences.  

It’s also important to remember that sometimes there’s nothing you can do to change your parent’s mind or get them to cooperate. In these cases, walking away or deferring to a professional could be the best thing to do for your sanity and the well-being of your elderly mom or dad — even if it doesn’t feel like it at that moment.