It seems like I should be better at this. For years I have been helping other families care for their aging parents. I know the signs of dementia, I know the best providers, I know the resources in Atlanta, but I do not know how to help my own parents. I can see that they are changing—my dad got lost last week driving home from church and my mom is starting to have trouble walking and probably needs a walker. I am so lost as to what to do, but I feel like this should be easier for us since I do this for a living.
There are many of us in the elder care community that help other families navigate through the complexities of aging but then face trouble helping our own families. We can talk to other older adults about advance care planning and difficult diagnoses, help them explore the various long-term care options, and even confront them about denials and the importance of sharing private information. This stuff is easy when we do it for other families. The thought of approaching our own aging parents or other loved ones, though, can often make us feel like novices with access to only the clunkiest of tools. Words, insights, and effective plans are elusive. Why is this so easy for us to do for other families yet so hard for us to do with our own? I don’t know all of the answers, but I have learned a few things about elder care professionals and their own journeys with aging loved ones:
1. We are not immune from complex aging and family issues. Other families are imperfect, too—just like our clients’ families. Despite decades of commitment to elder care, our parents may still rely on information from non-experts. We all have stories of our parents dismissing our advice and then being motivated into action by stories from their neighbor, hairdresser, or local news anchor. To our parents, we may always be the 15-year-old version of ourselves and never the grown up professionals we have become. So even though we may be adept at helping other families plan for their future, we may be ineffective at helping our own family create a proactive plan.
2. We, too, are susceptible to denial. Many of us are shocked when our parents, siblings, and spouses are diagnosed with dementia or are told they are dying. The signs of decline and illness can be so obvious and easy for us to see in a stranger or client but difficult for us to recognize and admit in our loved ones.
3. We need professional guidance. There is a strong belief that since we can help other families through these complex aging issues, we should also be able to help our own families. Over the last decade we have been retained by a number of other elder care professionals to help their families with estate and long-term care planning. And usually they approach us after several months of trying unsuccessfully to do it themselves. Their eventual need to engage another elder care professional is usually laced with shame. I have come to understand, though, that turning to another professional is not a sign of defeat and that being so close to a situation (emotionally and logistically) dulls the effectiveness of our professional skills and knowledge. In other words, we need each other to objectively assess the situation, to offer workable solutions, and to communicate difficult information.
4. We cannot prevent grief. It matters very little that we can intellectually prepare for this journey, that we understand the physiological changes that aging and disease bring, and that we know what lies ahead. It is still shocking and painful to lose a loved one. It is still hard, and we will still grieve. Our grief will not be lessened because we are so consistently and intensely exposed to the grief of others.
If you are an elder care professional dealing with an aging parent, spouse, or other loved one, please give yourself some grace and permission to be human. You do have experience and knowledge that will aid you on this journey, but this does not mean you have to be better at this than other families. This stuff is hard, and it will likely get messy. If you’d like some help on this journey, please give us a call at (404) 843-0121 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.