Dear Carol: My parents are in their 80s and have been fortunate with their health, but I worry about how they will do in the future. They still live in their home, which we have made safer with some upgrades, so that’s going fine for now. Any help they’ve needed has been provided by family members without too much disruption, so we consider ourselves fortunate.
What worries me is that while I don’t see signs of actual dementia, at least from what I know about it, I do see them filling in for each other more often when it comes to words. Should we be worried about them and their ability to think, plan, and remember? — DE.
Dear DE: I’m glad that your parents are doing well. Contrary to popular opinion, many people in their 80s are capable of handling their own lives with little assistance.
That doesn’t mean that they aren’t experiencing some effects of age, though, both physically and cognitively. Therefore, staying tuned into their interaction is good. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that they are continuing with a decadeslong habit of helping each other in all things. You may see more of that now, but that’s probably just some age-related recall and nothing to worry about.
Ask yourself if they are having problems in other areas, such as remembering to pay their bills or step-by-step work such as following a recipe. This might provide you with more insight.
I don’t like the idea of adult children turning potentially quality visiting time with their parents into a situation where the elders feel that they are constantly being “evaluated.” Instead, attempt regular, friendly talks with them about how they’d like their futures to unfold. If they are resistant, try asking about their friends, some of whom are likely struggling with illness or the loss of a spouse. This approach can serve as an icebreaker that provides them with some distance before they talk about themselves.
Your parents need to have powers of attorney set up for health and finances so if they haven’t done so, make talking about this with them a priority for everyone’s sake. Really listen while they talk about how they see their own future. With quiet, loving persistence, you’ll learn more about them as people and the choices they’d prefer. This is how you come to understand their priorities, even if you can’t make everything work out just as they’d like.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest that you brace yourself for what could be a rapid decline of the surviving spouse when your mom or dad passes away. At that time, the survivor will not only be dealing with the all-encompassing grief of losing a lifetime mate, he or she will have lost the other half of their survival team.
This will be a hard time for you, too, as you’ll be grieving the loss of a parent, so it will help to prepare yourself now by gently having these conversations while there is no crisis.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.