October 26, 2014

What To Do When Things Are Rocky With Your Parents


This was first posted about 3 1/2 years ago, well before Satisfying Retirement had many readers. Since it is a subject that continues to concern many of us, I decided to give it fresh exposure. I think many of the thoughts can also apply to siblings and marriages.

I am most interested in your thoughts and feedback on this topic.


Not long ago a reader asked for some feedback on the important issue of dealing with a difficult parent. This problem is one that many of us are facing now, or will have to deal with in the future. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area of human relationships. But, doing some basic research and experiencing some of these issues myself have provided some approaches that may be helpful for that reader, and you, to consider in your quest for satisfying retirement.

1) Don’t expect your family member to change. Whatever you do (or don’t do) accept that the difficult parent may not change. You can change some of the factors under your control that may make the relationship less stressful. But, expecting a difficult parent to become loving and accepting will only make your feeling toward that person worse when change does not occur.

2) Don't Give Advice Unless It's Asked For. Your parent is probably feeling a loss of control and freedom. If you begin to reverse the parent-child role by offering unsolicited advice on unimportant topics, you are risking problems. Importantly this concerns advice, not critical health and safety issues that must be faced.

3) Accept Differences of Opinions. After all, your parent is not you. Mom or Dad does not think exactly like you. Respect the opinions of others, don't disregard them. Don’t dismiss, out of hand, an opinion no matter how different from yours.

4) Listen to What Your Elderly Parent is Saying. Listen completely, really listen. Remember that an older person might take longer to form a response or finish a thought. A period of silence is not a bad thing that you need to fill immediately. Paying attention and listening carefully shows respect. Of course, listening works both ways so try to determine that your loved one is hearing and understanding what you are saying.

5) Attempt to determine a pattern. Does your parent’s mood worsen the longer he or she is awake? Could it be pain? it a growing feeling of frustration at the inability to perform usual daily tasks or to remember things? Angry outbursts, complaints, and sarcasm may be the result.

6) Respond to strong emotions with none. The best response is no response at all. Most people who like to argue do so because it tends to evoke a strong emotional reaction from others. Don't take the bait. If you respond to a challenge with a clam and neutral emotional tone, it is likely the combative parent will move on to another subject. your mother will probably drop the subject pretty quickly.

7) At all costs, stay calm. When you must deal with criticism and anger keep yourself under control. Yelling back never helps. Your parent’s emotions can be a projection of feelings of isolation and inability to do he or she used to do. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into a battle that is about emotions and not reality.

8) Protect Yourself. You and your parent cannot afford for you to suffer from burnout. While you can't change your aging parents' condition, you can do things for yourself. Remember that you need a respite for yourself. Your parent may not be happy (so what else is new?), but hire someone for a few hours, or even a full day to recharge your batteries. Taking a break is something that you require. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t accept criticism from others. You know your limits.



This is a complex issue that is loaded with emotional landmines. While I am comfortable with the steps noted above, I don't believe this list is complete. Your input and life experiences will help us all.

My dad will turn 91 in a few months. As his mental and physical facilities slip, I will be faced with more tough decisions about his care. I am as anxious to read what you have to say as anyone.







25 comments:

  1. Ahh, the parent/child relationship. I've often said - we're always our parents' children (even when the child is pushing 60 and isn't age relative?) and they are always the parents. I think your point about not expecting change is key. If anything, age seems to exacerbate existing dysfunction when there hasn't been emotional/spiritual growth. This point leads to surrender and acceptance. One of the things I've surrendered is the responsibility for their emotional growth and well-being while focusing on mine. I came to understand more about my parents when I explored their origins, one having been raised by an alcoholic father and one by a mentally ill mother. The other thing was appreciating the generational differences; they grew up in a subsistence lifestyle. Work was paramount to survival. There was little time for the "trivialities" of life. I came to appreciate that my mother's self-worth was strongly connected to her ability to care and do for others. Isn't that what we all struggle with as parents - letting our children go and finding ourselves separate from our parenthood role? I am the "child" yet I expect to be treated with the respect that would be offered to any other person. Kahlil Gibran says in reference to children - they come through you but not from you and though they are with you they belong not to you. I think of this often not only in my relationship with my parents but also with my adult child and grandchildren. I think it is a lifelong effort to maintain our individuality in the relationships that we forge, separate yet together.

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    1. Very well stated, Mona. I think the shifting relationships and responsibilities of our interaction with our parents is one of the toughest to manage well. There are so many emotional pitfalls involved that it is hard to always know what to do and then have the courage to do it.

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  2. This is great advice . . . if only we could follow it all the time!

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    1. If we could I guess we wouldn't be fully human.

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  3. There is an article in the NY Times that really hits home about this topic. It discusses the “reluctant caregiver”http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/the-reluctant-caregiver/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0


    This is a difficult topic for me. Before my dad passed, I thrived on doing whatever I could to help him through the last several months of his declining health. We had an incredibly close relationship. He was a quiet, gentle soul, capable of hurting no one. His loving personality, kind heart, and giving spirit shaped me into who I am today. Our time together at the end of his life is something I will always cherish.

    My mom has always been the matriarch in the truest sense of the word. I think it is impossible for her to not be judgmental, manipulative and controlling. This approach to life unfortunately has alienated many family members. To protect myself emotionally, very little of who I really am is revealed to her. It’s a superficial relationship (from my end), but it works to protect me from being hurt. The author of the NY times article talks about how your satisfaction and pride can come from having not turned your back on the parent who needs you. In other words, you know you are doing the right thing. I do have feelings of sadness for her, as she has battled increased infirmities as well as cancer. These feelings of sadness for her also help me to be a better caregiver. I also try to focus on some positive attributes that I can identify.

    I’ve also learned to ask for help from other family members, so that my husband and I can still escape the cold winter. It’s hard for me to ask for help; it’s not in my nature to ask for any help for anything! But I’ve learned to do so, and have never been turned down when I have asked for help.

    Difficult topic, for sure. I’ll be interested to hear what other folks have to say about this very important topic.

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    1. Our own emotional protection is an often neglected part of this difficult topic. Certainly it is hard to say "no" at times or walk away without allowing ourselves to be pulled into an unwinnable battle. Obviously, your seasonal trips to Florida is one way you protect yourself. Also, knowing you have done the best you can gives you some solace.

      Thanks, Carole.

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  4. Bob, this is wonderful advice. It's never easy to witness a parent's health and/or quality of life slipping away. When intervention of any type is necessary, it might be helpful to communicate face-to-face, if possible, and take notes. Explain to your parent that you're taking notes in order to remember every detail. Make a copy for your parent, and one for yourself (and other family members). Having the notes gives your parent (and you) something to review. As we age, our thought processes change, and it's difficult to grasp lots of ideas all at once. If your parent can read over your notes/suggestions, privately, over a period of time, they can begin to more fully grasp what's important to both parties.

    The other suggestion I have is for those who have large families. It helps when siblings meet together in advance, discuss concerns, then agree on one sibling who will act as the spokesperson. This gives the siblings a chance to speak freely to one another prior to involving the parent in the conversation. Parents can feel outnumbered and react defensively when confronted by all of their children at once. No matter what issues families face, if we can continue to respect one another, it might help the outcome. Of course, the exception to these suggestions is when the parent is no longer capable of making decisions. Dementia and Alzheimers seem to be affecting all families, sooner or later. That's why it's so important to take care of business as soon as possible, and get it on paper. We have lost one set of parents, and still have another sit, so I'm going to keep your list. Thanks!

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    1. As I have written in previous posts, I fought against the "mistakes'" my dad was making in how he was living after my mom died almost four years ago. Finally, I understood that his choices were his choices and right for him.

      My brothers live in other parts of the country so I am responsible for his care and well-being. Luckily, they have agreed with what has transpired and we are on the same page so dad only has to hear from one person. That does make it easier.

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  5. Wonderful and timely blog post for me! I will try to remember these tips as I deal with my parents. I won't go into any details as it is like opening Pandora's Box. (And I am sure my situation is the same yet different than your other readers.) I pray for guidance. My father is so independent and my mother wants to just be pampered and never do another thing for herself. Already too much information. So, I will summarize it by saying my current mantra as I rise in the morning is....Different Day...Different Rodeo. I am also appreciating other commenters advice and experiences and will look forward to seeing any other perspectives.

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    1. "Different Day...Different Rodeo." That is a great way of approaching this situation. Particularly in my case, my dad's short term memory is pretty much gone, along with most of his hearing. We repeat the same things over and over. When I start to get frustrated I try to remember how he must have felt with I was a child and every life lesson had to be repeated over and over. He stuck with it and so will I.

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  6. My husband is in the same position you are, Bob. His sister is on the other side of the country, and honestly her relationship with their dad was always rocky. Dad has always been closer to his son, which I believe has chauvinistic overtones. He preferred women who 'knew their place', so to speak, which I and my sister-in-law don't fit. He's always cranky when I go visit, but he LOVES it when Dave goes. The result...I rarely go, and for obvious reasons neither does his sister.
    Dad's mind is just about gone. He's very frail and has had serious health issues this year, but then he is 96. We're very grateful he is in a facility and can afford full time care. But, when his money runs out he'll be in skilled nursing until he dies, and medicaid will cover it. It's good to note, once you get into a facility you can stay until you die, because medicaid will kick in when your own $ runs out.
    Still, it makes me sad to watch him decline. I feel he hasn't had a life in at least 2 years. I can't imagine that. I also feel the pressure on Dave. Having all the responsibility is exhausting.
    I just pray I never put my kids in that position.
    b

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    1. My Dad is in a facility where once he can no longer remain in assisted living he will move into the on-site health care (nursing) center. He will never run out of money so that is one worry I don't have. But, it was tough watching my mom become just a shell during her last 18 months and I don't look forward to going through the same thing with him. But, I'm in town so that's what is going to happen.

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  7. I could have used this advice earlier in the year, dealing with a sibling, instea of a parent. Anyone in the family that needs support can put you in the role of caregiver. I actually made a new year's resolution to "help my family more"...boy, did that get turned upside down! It's extremely difficult to respond to what the person needs or wants IN THEIR VIEW, rather than yours.

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    1. Putting ourselves in the other person's shoes does not come naturally to many of us, but is sometimes required. Yes, Bonnie, it is not easy.

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  8. Thank you for bringing this article back so I can remember the ideas.
    My mom has smoothed most of her roads with us in the last two years. Unfortunately, that mean occasionally throwing one of the sibs under the bus to the other sibs. Oh well, we are just mucking our way through. I figure she will be around for at least ten years. I will miss her laugh when it is all said and done.

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    1. When this post first ran I think I had as many readers in a month as I now average in a day, so for most everyone it is fresh info. When I re-read it recently I though the points were still quite valid, so a rerun was an easy decision. Hopefully, some of the ideas will help the "mucking through" a little easier.

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    2. Janette's response brings to mind my cousin's reaction when her mother died, a mother that she often locked horns with. My cousin referred to her dad as her "parent" stating her mother was her brother's "parent" because of the closer relationship each had with the other. I wondered aloud to her how I would feel when my mother passed, the mother with the sharp tongue who often saves it for the people closest to her. She replied that in spite of their difficult relationship what she knew for sure was that she missed her after her death. I also know, having worked in health care for many years, that some parents have burned their bridges by the time the end comes.

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    3. The article was good the first time and the second. The issue could come up every year and I would probably be able to pick out a different gem from it for my current journey. Thanks!
      BTW- Your following does not surprise me at all.

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  9. This post is particularly timely as Jeremy's mom approaches her 100th birthday with on again, off again dimentia. We've found that it is a little easier for us daughters in law than it is for her two sons. A couple of observationa we've made:

    1) Resist the urge to correct - As mom becomes more forgetful (or perhaps a little more out of touch), it's natural for her sons to want to jump in and correct her, saying,"No, mom, that's not right," And the quarrel begins - along with mom's need to dig her feet in and be right. I think it's important to remember this from HER perspective. She doesn't want to feel like she's losing control, and she doesn't want to feel STUPID. The kinder thing is to allow her the win on topics that just don't matter.

    2) It's not our job be her historian - Sometimes mom remember things bigger and more imaginary than we know to be true. (Did we know that she recently travelled to the south pole???) While this was originally very disturbing to us, as would naturally be your feeling if you think your parent is 'losing it', we have found it easier to recognize that mom has a "rich inner life" and that these ideas make her happy! And happiness is what it is all about.

    3) It helps to remind her of events in the distant past - Because her long term memory is much more intact than short term memory, we say things like, "Mom, remember when I was a little kid and..." She almost always remembers, and talking about those events is a good thing - remember Happiness!

    4) At some point, you must set some of the guilt free. You make the BEST decisions for your parent, given the options that are available - at some point it comes down to care and safety. Be kind to yourself.

    Just some of our perspectives. Thanks again, for a great post!

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    1. Excellent points, Lynn. I know with my dad I would ask if he wanted to change something or why did he insist on wearing sweaters 12 months out of the year, especially in Phoenix. But, I finally accepted that these are his choices, he is content, and I need to butt out.

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  10. Bob,

    As you may remember, my dad will soon be 89 and like you, my mom passed several years ago. It sounds like we are in similar situations, although he is not yet in assisted living and still lives alone. We are monitoring his memory status along with his physician and we have had the conversation about when the transition to assisted living may come. He said (at least now) that he is okay with the idea...but not yet. We have purchased a medical alert system. He is in remarkable physical health, good strength and balance, but his short term memory is not good. He can tell you who he sat next to in his third grade classroom but can't remember what he had for breakfast. He has about a half a dozen stories that he tells us over and over.... sometimes in the same visit. Once, to my regret, I told him, "Dad, you told me that story twice already!" He immediately had in succession a look of shock, sadness and then shame on his face. "I'm sorry, he said. "My memory is not very good anymore." I was so ashamed of myself at that moment I resolved to never do that to him again. So now, when I hear the same stories I listen as though I am hearing them for the first time. And I ask for more details. And, like Lynn I am asking more questions about his past. I have learned more about his adventures in the Philippines in WW2 than I ever have before. The man should have written a book!

    Anyway, thanks for posting this again. It always is great to hear the experience and suggestions of others.

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    1. Yes, Rick, our situation does sound similar. At almost 91 my dad walks without a cane or walker, gives himself his own pills, reads a book or two a week, and has lower blood pressure than me. He needs glasses to read but has no other real physical limitations. Amazing,

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  11. I was lucky to have a good relationship with both my parents (now dead). One thing that I had to work on in that relationship, however, was realizing that sometimes they needed my help but hated to ask for it. When my father became too ill to drive (a loss of independence that greatly distressed him), I would give him half a day to drive him wherever he wanted to go, no questions asked. Basically, I was his chauffeur and he was in control. Of course, he often got me involved in projects that my mother disapproved of.
    I recently read a great book called Alone And Invisible No More by Dr. Allan Teel which proposes a new way to think about and provide respectful caring to the elderly. Some readers may be interested in his program, Full Circle America (Google it to find their web site), which is designed to help fragile elders keep their control, dignity and independence while also lessening the burden on family caregivers. -Jean

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    1. I will check out that book. The unlimited chauffeur service is a great idea, though my dad is quite happy staying in his apartment.

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  12. I'm past this phase - both my parents have died - but remember it well.

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