Boomerangst: Turning Dilemmas Into Discoveries – An Aging Parent Needs Help

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Offers of help to an aged parent might need some fine-tuning

Q. When we suggest something to my elderly mom she gets very defensive. She says we are taking away her independence (i.e. ‘Mom, let us help with your laundry’) or that we are insulting her (‘Mom, your place is kind of dusty, maybe we can get you some help’). Our problem is we need to bring about change without causing my mother undue angst. What would you suggest we do?
– Cheryl, Toronto


A. No doubt your intentions are noble and you love your mother dearly, but maybe you should be asking what you can do to help, rather than telling your mother what you think she needs help with. She may not even care about the dust, but is offended that you do.

“The reason you’re getting resistance is because you haven’t hit the nail on the head,” says Dr. Maggie Gibson, a London, Ontario-based psychologist working in the care of older adults, who is also President of the Canadian Association of Gerontology.

Dr. Gibson points out that people’s priorities often change as they age. The things that were once important – like a dust-free home or a perfect weed-free garden – may not matter as much to them now. And that’s just fine as long as there aren’t any safety issues. Your mother may be hoping for something you’ve not yet offered and that could be another reason she’s defensive.

“Perhaps she’s thinking ‘I don’t care about dust, but I would love it if you could come for lunch once a week’.”  Dr. Gibson suggests you also need to be careful about offering unsolicited advice, even though it’s well intentioned.  “When you’re giving advice to an elderly parent and telling them you want to help them by, say, cleaning their house, think how you’d feel if that parent turned to you and said ‘I’ve been noticing the way you run your home and your marriage and I’d like to give you some advice’. Age really isn’t the issue. Anyone would be offended.”

Here’s something else Dr. Gibson thinks you should consider: Research shows that people in long-term care feel better when they both give and receive, even when they’re not exchanging the same kind of help. Think about it. It’s an adjustment for aging parents to be heavily on the receiving end of help from their children when for years they were the ones doing the giving and the children receiving. It’s a seismic shift in power balance and one that can leave aged parents feeling useless and unneeded.

So ask yourself this. “Are you sure when you’re trying to ‘help’ your older parent that you’re protecting their dignity and preserving their self identity,” asks Dr. Gibson. “Are you allowing them to contribute or reciprocate in some way, shape or form?”

“We think we have the wisdom to know what our elderly parents need, but often we don’t. We need to ask, not presume. And we need to remember that no matter what age we are we all need to feel valued, heard and respected.”


Send Diane a brief description of your dilemma, along with your first name and where you live, to [email protected]

A professional journalist for more than 25 years, Diane Sewell has written for some of the top newspapers and magazines in Canada and is a baby boomer herself. Her new blog “Boomerangst: Turning Dilemmas into Discoveries” is interactive with readers and focuses on life issues – like aging, dating, second marriages, sex, death, family and fashion. Diane will use her expertise to find the right expert to help solve your predicament, unearthing kernels of truth and quickly getting to the heart of the issue.