During the years I provided loving care for my mother, I learned that helping her too much created its own set of problems.
She was physically hampered by chronic knee and back pain; her thinking was marred by memory and language deficits caused by mild dementia. I thought it was my duty to do all I could to take care of her every need and keep her safe from harm. But as I made her dinner three nights a week, organized her pill box and straightened up her apartment, she wasn't more contented; she seemed unhappy. With all my best intentions and concerted energies, I mostly succeeded in curbing her independence and squelching her spirit. She didn't see me as her caring son so much as the overbearing usurper of roles she cherished.
If I had done nothing at all for her, then I believe she would have floundered. But I finally realized that by doing too much for her, I trampled her dignity.
Many caregivers struggle with finding a balance between doing too much and too little. This is all the more complicated when a care receiver's abilities change from day to day or even hour to hour. There should be an understanding that caregivers won't take over any tasks unless they absolutely have to. But whether help is or isn't necessary is open to endless debate between earnest caregivers and proud care receivers.
How do we maintain our loved ones' independence and morale by providing them with the right amount of support to optimize their functioning? Here are some ideas taken from our new book, AARP Meditations for Caregivers:
Powwow and plan. Even before your parent clearly needs help, talk with her about how her capabilities may change as she ages. This is not being presumptuous; it's being realistic. Begin a conversation about how she might one day cope with diminished physical and cognitive abilities and how you might best support her.
Don't jump in with help too quickly. Be cautious before introducing change into an aging parent's life or risk resistance. Observe your parent's behavior and functioning over time and then confirm your perceptions with others who also know her well before concluding that she actually requires assistance at this time.
Focus on what your loved one can still do. Steer her toward her strengths — for example, talking on the phone if she hasn't the eyesight or fine dexterity to legibly write, setting the table if she hasn't the organizational skills to cook a full-course meal, or remembering old times if she's lost short-term recall.
Frame help as empowering. Tell your parent that your job is to help her live as well as possible as she gets older. Reassure her that the goal is to enable her to continue to do the things she still wants to do — just as leaning on a cane, for example, might help someone walk farther than she might otherwise. Emphasize that you may be the cane but that she is still traveling the path of her own life.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and family therapist, is one of AARP's caregiver experts and coauthor of the new AARP Meditations for Caregivers: Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family (Da Capo, July 2016). Follow him on Twitter @drbarryjjacobs and on Facebook.