Clues can help adult children see how mom and dad are doing
Host Amber Smith: Here's some expert advice from geriatrics chief, Dr. Sharon Brangman. How do adult children know when their parents need help?
Sharon Brangman, MD: Well, it's a very individual thing, and actually the holiday season is a time when we often get the most calls. And that's because that's when families come into town, and they may get a totally different impression as to what's going on compared to what they got while they were talking on the telephone or FaceTiming with their parents. They can see up close and personal what's actually going on in the home. And so many adult children, especially if they don't live in the area, call us during the holidays wanting to get things organized.
And so the first thing they often notice is that the house is not really being kept up well, and maybe their parent is just having more and more trouble with repairs and managing the mail, keeping the refrigerator stocked, getting rid of clutter and those sorts of things. And that is often the first sign that something may be amiss. Sometimes they will notice the car has a lot of unexplained dents on it or things that look like little fender benders, and usually the parent will minimize it and try to say that the son or the daughter is making a big deal about nothing, or something like that. But those are usually the early telltale signs.
And then when they're spending more time with their parents, they may notice that the day just doesn't go in an organized way. There may be long periods of sleeping or not getting dressed and ready for the day, or difficulty organizing meals. I had one family, for example, who came for Thanksgiving, and usually the mother would prepare this enormous meal for everyone. And when they got there, things were in disarray. The food was not prepared. And when you think about making a big meal like for Thanksgiving, that involves many, many little decisions in order to get the food on the table and cooked and ready to go at the right time. And some people, as we get older, start to have trouble keeping track of all those little details.
So there can be any number of little hints, and adult children start to recognize this when they spend time with their parents.
If there is signs of that house not being kept up, and it may just be too much, too much house. You know, after children are gone and there's no need for three or four bedrooms and a lawn to mow and a driveway to shovel and a house that needs painting or some sort of repairs. You know, a house constantly needs repairs, and that can just become overwhelming.
So it's time to have a frank conversation. And it's usually not settled in one discussion. And it has to be approached with respect and consideration. Now, if the parent does not have dementia or any kind of cognitive impairment, they really have the ability and the right to live the way they want to live. So we cannot impose what we think is appropriate, even though it may be safer and it may make sense. You can't make someone do anything. And you know it, it just doesn't work that way.
So this can be a challenge for adult children, particularly those who do not live near their parents. So, you know, we have a very mobile society, and many of us do not live close to our parents or where we grew up. Or our parents may still live in our hometown, and we adult children have moved elsewhere. So the ability to kind of reach back across the miles can be very challenging. Now, there are a lot of resources for people who recognize a problem and want to seek help, but it can take a while for some parents to have that level of insight to get there.
It could be that the parent has too many things to keep track of, and it may be time to simplify their routine or downsize, or get help taking care of some of the details in life. It doesn't always correlate with an illness, but sometimes it can be the first signs of a memory problem, or someone who's just becoming what we call physically frail. That is someone who may not have that robust vitality that they used to have, maybe to mow the lawn or to clear the driveway of snow. And they may not have dementia or any specific medical problem, but just physically it's harder to keep up their previous routines.
The challenge is, often the parents don't see the same problems or have the same level of concern. So this is often a challenging discussion. There are very few older adults who have that same level of alarm, for example, that an adult child might have. They also are not comfortable with that role reversal with a child, telling them what should be done.
You know, we spend our whole lives looking for autonomy and independence and doing things the way we want, and it's inevitable at some point that we are all going to need some help when we get older. There are very few people that have the insight to recognize when they need that help. And so that's a bit of a challenge for adult children, and for parents. And it can be a source of friction if it isn't approached properly.
Host Amber Smith: You've been listening to Dr. Sharon Brangman, from Upstate Medical University.