Balancing Act: How to Help Your Loved One Without Helping Too Much

“I want to do it myself!” As a parent, at some point, you have to learn to let go. Kids must be allowed to try and fail, hard as it is to stand by and watch. Growing up is all about making mistakes and learning how to do better, next time.

But what do you do when the roles are reversed, and it’s your aging parent who insists on acting independently, when you think she really needs help and is refusing to acknowledge limitations? Who’s right? How do you know?

That conflict can become especially intense after your loved one has been hospitalized for surgery or another serious medical issue, and he’s been cleared by health professionals to go back home. How can they be so sure he’ll be fine recuperating on his own? After all, you’re the one on the ground who sees how he’s changed—perhaps becoming weaker, maybe more forgetful—post hospitalization!

Respecting Your Loved One’s Need for Independence

For older adults who have been living successfully on their own until a medical crisis, reclaiming their lives prior to whatever landed them in the hospital is a strong motivator. They may take longer to get going in the morning. They may sleep more and nap during the day as they recover. They may need time to make appropriate lifestyle adjustments that seem obvious to you.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t figure out the best, new combination for self-care and daily activities that enables them to remain independent. In this best-case scenario, your aging parent is just on a different timetable than you.

So how do you know when it’s appropriate to insist on helping or getting help for your parent after a significant medical episode? The answer depends on several factors, including observed risks to health and safety, as well as how much and what kind of risk you can tolerate out of respect for your parent’s right to self-determination.

Separating Real Risk from Presumed Risk

Let’s take the serious risks, first. If your parent is having trouble remembering to take medications on schedule, if she is too weak or unable to make meals, if he is unsteady walking or climbing stairs, if she no longer cares about personal hygiene, if he forgets to pay bills—significant changes in behavior with real health risks for a person who was always capable, organized and independent require professional assessment.

However, what to do when the changes are more subtle and worrisome, but not life-threatening, involves not only an impartial assessment of your loved one’s situation, but also an honest self-inventory of your own fears and concerns. For a parent who already feels diminished by the natural aging process, declining strength and agility, and an awareness that her mind is not as sharp as it used to be, your insistence on providing help may be well-meaning, but not truly necessary—and cost your loved one’s self-respect.

Understanding When Your Needs May Be the Issue, Not Your Loved One’s

Here are three key questions to ask yourself if you are walking the fine line between helping appropriately and helping too much:

  1. What can my loved one DO, as opposed to NOT DO? It’s all too easy to dwell on the negative. Reframe your assessment by focusing on capabilities, first.
  2. Does our disagreement over appropriate help echo old conflicts and power struggles in our relationship? This one is hard to determine on your own and may require an unbiased third party to sort out. But it’s important to differentiate between what is actually at risk and what is a trigger for arguments that may have nothing to do with the facts on the ground.
  3. How much risk can my loved one live with—and am I able to tolerate that choice? If your aging parent understands the situation and attendant risks, and is able to make reasonable judgments about safety and health, then there comes a point when you will need to let go. Whatever fear and guilt you may carry about the possibility of your loved one getting hurt or sick due to lack of help is your issue to work through, not your parent’s. This can be a tough path to travel, but it can also be freeing.

An Aging Life Care Manager® can provide an impartial, expert evaluation of your loved one’s status, help you to navigate the murky stretches of your journey together, and recommend next steps for appropriate assistance, home modifications and future care options. Remember, while these decisions may seem intractable, there is help and support available—for all of you.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care Manager™. Drawing on more than 35 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.

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Image: Wade Austin Ellis

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One Response to Balancing Act: How to Help Your Loved One Without Helping Too Much

  1. monica wolf says:

    Great, informative blog, read in a timely fashion. This is my dilemma now. My mom drove in the snow yesterday. She told me after the fact, which was a good thing!

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