Are You Bullying Your Aging Parents?

How to navigate the fine line between stepping in and overstepping your bounds

By Linda Bernstein
Originally Posted On May 2, 2013

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Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

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Of all the fine lines we have to walk in our lifetime, one of the most challenging, yet important, is how we deal with the challenges that inevitably crop up with our aging parents.
 
Everyone’s circumstances and family dynamics are different, of course, but there are certain commonalities. Chief among them is how to provide help, support and comfort while respecting our parents’ intellect and abilities. Even as the roles shift, they’re still our parents, and no matter how wise or experienced we are, to them, we'll always be "the kids."
 
“As our parents age and need more and more help, it’s natural to want to lend a hand,” says Brian D. Carpenter, an associate professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies “later in life” family relationships. “But when you get involved, you need to make sure that you don't become domineering.

“Seniors who feel like their children are trying to take over their lives get resentful and angry — and as a result often disregard their help just to spite them or assert their independence."

This is why it's important that as our parents age and do start to lose some of their abilities, we stay vigilant of our own behavior. Nothing presses our buttons more than family, and for many of us with unresolved childhood issues, like anger, jealousy, disempowerment or resentment, without that watchful eye it can be easy to slip into unconscious behavior patterns like bullying. 

Stepping Up vs. Overstepping Boundaries
 
So where exactly is the line between being “helpful” and turning into a bully? Christina Steinorth, a Santa Barbara psychotherapist who specializes in baby boomer/older parent relationships and is the author of Cue Cards for Life, cautions: “Sometimes when you do what you feel is needed — arrange a doctor appointment, suggest grab bars — your parents will resent your good advice. People have a fierce desire to remain independent, often even though they really do need assistance.”
 
Add to that the difficulty of accepting the shifting reality of who is now caring for whom. This can be more difficult for our parents to accept because they often view it as “losing power” to their children.
 
A big part of striking the right balance has to do with how we speak and act. It’s imperative that we show respect, not attempt to force our will, and to make everything a negotiation (or at least offer options). And we need to pick our battles. “Let your parents do as much as they can and don’t sweat the small stuff,” Steinorth says. “This way, when you have to focus on the important things, like health, finances and safety, you’re less likely to meet opposition.”
 
More effective than making demands or giving orders, Carpenter says, is making suggestions. “Ask questions about how they feel and what they need,” he suggests. If parents don’t feel infantilized or pushed into situations, they’re more likely to be open to solutions you work out together.
 
5 Things Adult Children and Parents Fight About
 
It boils down to this, Carpenter says: “If you think your parents can do something by themselves, let them. But if they — or someone else — could be harmed, don’t feel guilty about getting involved.” Most seniors who are slipping a bit are lucid enough to recognize their new limitations. “They’re often scared,” Steinorth says, “and they’re looking for someone they trust to make things easier for them.” And that someone should be you.
 
Here are five of the big issues that are likely to come up, plus suggestions for avoiding conflict.
 
1. Driving

Why it’s an issue Nothing gives people a greater sense of independence than driving. A car gets them where they want to go when they want to go. Yet in the hands of someone with physical or cognitive limitations, an automobile can become a lethal weapon.

How to handle Before you insist your parent hand over the keys, try to negotiate ways she can drive her car less frequently — perhaps only locally and in the daylight. Elderly people who have become nervous drivers and don’t feel they have to put up a fight often discover they actually prefer not being in the driver’s seat.
 
How to handle In the best of all worlds, parents would open their checkbooks and show us their credit card statements. But if they’re unwilling and you try to force the issue, they might accuse you of meddling. When there’s no evidence of a problem, it’s better to just offer help — like balancing a checkbook or organizing financial documents — which will give you a peek into the bigger picture. Keep your antennae up for hints of trouble: their misplacing important papers or a single parent suddenly talking up a new Mr. Wonderful who has all sorts of exciting plans for the two of them.
 
If you suspect they are mismanaging their resources and they resist your involvement, tell them you need to call in a social worker. It might be easier for your parents to listen to a neutral third party, and a trained professional might have communication or coping strategies that you don't. (Find your local Department of Social Services by searching your state and social services.) “When there’s a danger of a parent being bilked,” Steinorth says, “do what you have to do and plan to live with the consequences.”

3. Home Safety

Why it’s an issue People can be slow to accept their physical limitations. If they’ve always gotten in and out of the shower OK, why worry now? The answer is that we all have a problem projecting in the future, yet for people over 65, falls are the leading cause of injury and death. When a parent is having problems with gait or limb strength or has recently started using a walker or cane, it’s time to start the conversation.

How to handle Scare tactics go a long way. The image of lying alone, in grave pain, injured (or possibly dying) alone in the living might be enough to "put the fear of God" into a parent who's been blasé about such issues. One 85-year-old wouldn’t wear her life-alert pendant until she heard about someone who fell and waited several hours for the ambulance to arrive.
 
Most people will accept minor fixes, like rug tape or bathtub no-slip strips, so if you start with the little things (and build up to the larger ones), you won’t come off as oppressive. Tour your parents’ living areas using this checklist for common hazards. Things to watch for include wires, uneven floors, unsecured rugs or carpets, depressions or ruts in the driveway or lawn and excess clutter. Stay alert for signs a parent may have left a burner on, like a burnt pot or smoke marks on the ceiling. When visiting, do subtle things, like ask for a cup of coffee to see how well your parent manages the oven and other appliances.
 
4. Doctors, Treatments and Medication

Why it’s an issue Seniors are not always forthcoming about their medical reports. Sometimes they haven’t completely understood what a doctor has said, or they could be deliberately withholding information they think will make them seem enfeebled or cause you to worry.
 
How to handle If your parent seems healthy, back off (but keep a watchful eye). If, however, you observe any symptoms or notice your parent is missing doctor appointments, getting confused with his medications and won’t let you help, call in a social worker or nurse. Tell your parent you are doing so. In a life-or-death matter, there’s no such thing as a bossy pants.
 
5. End-of-Life Planning

Why it’s an issue No one likes to think about this heaviest of all topics — and yet if people want their wishes heeded, important documents need to be in place: a power of attorney, a last will and testament, a living will, organ donation papers, funeral preferences and more.
 
How to handle You cannot force your parents to do any of these things or tell you where they keep the safety deposit box key. And this is one area where social services won’t step in. So if a parent gets angry when you broach the topic, print out articles for them to read or show them a YouTube video. Frame it in the most loving and supportive way, and remind them this is about their wishes. (If these things aren’t in order, the government steps in. That’s often a powerful enough negative motivator.)
 
For those of us in the sandwich generation, it’s important to keep things as positive as possible while we find ways to help our parents as they age. “Stop and think how you would want to be treated,’” Carpenter says. “What you’re doing — that’s what you’re going to get.” And if we’re lucky and set a good example, hopefully our own children won’t have such a fine line to walk.