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Living in a Parent’s Home Can Complicate Caregiving

Fear of losing independence can make some older adults lash out

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When 55-year-old Shannon first moved in with her Parkinson’s-stricken mother, Bridget, to help take care of her, she knew she was a guest in her mother’s house and needed to respect her right to make all decisions about it. But as time passed and Bridget had more trouble walking and thinking clearly, Shannon began to question her judgment and even right to choose.

Shouldn’t they put in stair glides and grab bars to help her mother safely manage stairs and get in and out of the shower? Shannon asked. Bridget refused, saying she didn’t want to change the look of her lovely home. Couldn’t Shannon hire a contractor to put in a ramp up to the front door? Bridget again said no because the neighbors would then gossip about her increasing difficulty climbing the front steps. It was as if her mother, losing control over the movements of her body, insisted on complete control of her house. Shannon could understand this as an attempt at face-saving but also wondered how long they would live together before it would be considered their house, not only Bridget’s, and she had the go-ahead to make changes necessary for dealing prudently with Parkinson’s.

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Adult children who uproot their own lives to move into ailing parents’ homes and become caregivers often help prevent those parents from having to go into long-term care facilities. But some parents may view their children’s moves as “takeover” attempts and experience their help as a loss of independence. They may crave solitude and feel intruded upon by the children’s constant presence on their living room couches and at their kitchen tables. They may feel annoyed by the everyday debates with their kids about what food they should eat or whether they do their physical therapy exercises. Those children may rightly believe they deserve their parents’ gratitude for their sacrifices but instead are unfairly resented. That makes caregiving much more difficult, even embittering, for them.

How can family caregivers who move into parents’ homes maintain respect for parents’ choices but also gain respect for the essential care they provide? Here are some ideas:

Have a before-the-move talk

Prior to making the move, the adult child and parent should have a frank talk about the why, what and how. The “why” is about establishing they are joined in common purpose to help the parent live as well as possible with declining physical and perhaps cognitive skills in the comfort of their own home, not an assisted living or skilled nursing facility. The child should point out she or he isn’t seeking power and glory through caregiving but, rather, practicality and love. The “what” is contending with the challenging situation at hand; in Bridget’s case, a progressive neurological disease which will make it harder for her to walk. The “how” are the ways they’ll collaborate as a team — talking together and respecting each other’s viewpoints — to achieve the goal of living at home as long as possible.

Don’t make the home the battleground

Parents can feel hopelessly frustrated fighting a devastating disease that’s altering them. Sometimes those frustrations are subconsciously misdirected at things still within their control, such as resisting changes to their homes or rejecting the reasonable advice of their adult child caregivers. No one likes to feel personally rebuffed or even attacked. Those caregivers may become just as frustrated as their parents and then try to assert their advice more forcefully. What was a collaborative fight against the disease will then be transformed into parent and child sniping at each other about grab bars. Avoid this tragic, misplaced battle. Always keep in mind that parents are suffering because of what is happening to them, not because a well-meaning child wants to put in a ramp.

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Hold periodic catch-ups

It’s easy for a caregiver and care receiver to get caught up in daily care routines without reflecting on how things are going overall. To reinforce a spirit of togetherness and ensure the parent feels heard and respected, the adult child should initiate at least quarterly “How are we doing?” sessions. If a parent complains the child is taking over, then that child should empathize with the parent’s feelings and try to act more collaboratively. If the child must overrule a parent’s choices about their home for reasons of safety or cost, then it must be done with ample explanation, sensitivity and genuine regret for acting unilaterally. The child should repeat at every chance: We are under the same roof, in this together, to confront the disease and not one another.

Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and health care consultant, is the coauthor of  Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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