5 rules to help our parents age successfully

I know we all want the best for our parents, and very often that starts with keeping them happy in the comfort and familiarity of the homes and neighborhoods that they love. Lately I’ve been thinking about just how to do it, and I’ve come up with Rules to Help Our Parents Age Successfully.

Rule 1: At All Costs, Be in Touch

Depending on how old your parents are, there are lots of good reasons to focus on presence as a core objective.

If they’re independent, recently retired and healthy, this is an ideal opportunity to share this wonderful time with them – no job, no mortgage, no responsibilities – possibly with your adorable kids around to bring them joy (and go home at night).

And it’s the right time to establish an enriched phase in your relationship – still their child but a friend and partner in their happiness and well-being.

If they’re a little further up the aging ladder, you’ve reached a new phase. It’s time to ratchet up the contact:

  • to begin monitoring their health, habits and safety;
  • to spot opportunities to help, either with day-to-day living or decision-making about the future; and
  • most important, to deliver peace of mind, ensuring them that you’re thinking of them and ready at any time to be there. 

If you focus on routine, natural contact when everything is swell, inevitable future challenges (health trouble or death of a spouse or taking away the keys) will be easier to deal with.

When you’re with them, BE there. It’s heartbreaking when parents anticipate a son’s return to town, then watch him head out every night with old friends or turn their home into a branch office for his company.

Finally, any traffic jam, delayed flight or canceled meeting is a chance to invest in the happiness of a parent. Really want to make your dad happy? Call him for no reason and chat for 15 minutes about something trivial.

Rule 2: Don’t Judge a Mom by Her Cover

At recent holiday gatherings my friends and relatives shared stories of how well our parents have been doing, and how great they look. It was all true, but the conversation quickly turned to the fuller picture.

  • Yes, there had been some falling in the house.
  • An aunt lost her keys again and forgot which car she drove.
  • Dinners brought six months ago had been found untouched in the freezer.
  • A friend’s dad had fallen in an intersection while walking in the neighborhood.

In what appears to be the best of times for the spry elderly woman I see at the grocery store, it’s important to consider what may be the truer picture.

That trip to Heinen’s is possibly the highlight of her week. Unlike her kids, she can’t just toss on a baggy sweater and a baseball cap. So there’s makeup and hair and a nice jacket and remembering what to lock and bring, then the challenging drive.

Even more important: We don’t see the 25 days each month that she doesn’t leave the house.

In short, if you’re good at Rule 1, being in touch, it’s easier to really know where your parents are and where they’re headed. And harder to be fooled on those days when they look and act 10 years younger than they are.

Rule 3: You Can’t Rely on the BMV to Do Your Job

Not long ago I sat near a lovely woman in her 80s who also had chosen to celebrate her birthday at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. At one point she turned to her daughter and said, “What’s that man doing over there?”

It was sad, because “that man” was a metallic oval vision-testing machine mounted on the counter 10 feet away. I expected that right here in front of everyone, on her birthday, she’d be told that she’d never drive again. But alas she was saved by the BMV! “No night driving” was the determination.

As I keep telling my friends: Just because your mom can still drive to Heinen’s, it doesn’t mean she should. The responsibility falls on you and me to move our moms and dads into the passenger seat when it’s no longer safe for them and other drivers and pedestrians.

Surely this is one of the more difficult conversations you’ll ever have. There are a few strategies, and the obvious wrong one is: When you come across a story of a fatality caused by an elderly driver, make sure your parents see it. Might work ... but cruel.

The better idea is a blend of these three approaches:

  • Safety: “Mom, you and I both know it’s time to let others take the wheel. My sisters and I would never forgive ourselves if something happened to you while driving. We’re noticing more and more that you’re not completely in control on the road.”
  • Empathy: “I understand how tough this is. Plain and simple, you’re giving up your freedom to come and go as you please. I don’t want you to feel imprisoned. I’ll do everything I can to find an adequate transportation substitute for you.”
  • Finance: Share a simple “Car Ownership vs Hired Driver” spreadsheet, including costs of fuel, insurance, maintenance and lease/payment. (And proceeds from the sale of an owned vehicle.) There’s NO WAY car ownership makes financial sense for an occasional driver.

This conversation will never be easy. But the earlier you start it, the better off you (and your parents and siblings) will be. 

Rule 4: “Safe at Home” Isn’t Enough for Our Parents

If your kids no longer trust you to check their homework (like mine), it doesn’t mean your school days are over. Now’s the time to educate yourself about the successful aging of your mom and dad.

One simple way to stay informed is to find a single source that covers a range of senior-related topics. My favorite is NextAvenue.org, an invaluable resource produced by Twin Cities PBS. I found this nugget in a recent article:

“The scientific community is abuzz with the health detriments of isolation. Brigham Young University researchers found isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. What’s more, there is a 64% increase in risk of dementia for those who are isolated and lonely.”

Of all the things you can do to help your parents, getting them out is Job No. 1. And it doesn’t have to cost a lot of time or money. Invest in educating yourself about local opportunities for them now, and that effort is highly likely to result in a longer, happier, healthier life for your mom and dad.

At Thrive Westshore, we can be your partner in isolation-busting. Over the last couple of months we’ve enjoyed taking our clients to popular Cleveland attractions like the Botanical Garden, Great Lakes Science Center and the West Side Market.

And sometimes we make it up as we go, driving around to find the best neighborhoods for fall foliage or Christmas lights, shopping at Whole Foods and at local farmers markets, or grabbing lunch before or after a salon appointment.

Remember all those days locked in your basement growing up? Neither do I. Get your mom and dad out now, the way they got you to school, practice, birthday parties, vacations, the zoo, the library, Cedar Point, Baskin-Robbins, summer camp and lots more. It's our turn to find ways to keep life interesting for our parents. I guarantee you won't regret a minute of it. 

Rule 5: Mom Rides Shotgun to the Doctor’s Office

Increasingly, approaching a doctor’s office gives me pause, as I wonder which extreme in 21st century medical service I’ll encounter when I walk through the door. Will it be:

  • The Starship Enterprise, with cameras and touchscreens and enough stored electronic chart data that each of the nurses I meet asks me about my son’s braces, my Michigan vacation, my cholesterol level and my dog Scooter?
  • Or Dr. Bennett’s Mayberry office, where we’ll chat about Aunt Bea for a while as I fill out the same form I filled out two weeks ago, and they copy my insurance info with a pen and chide me for not having my original Social Security card?

Either of these scenarios is no fun for your mom. Parking, finding the office, checking in and waiting are challenging even on a sunny day when you’re feeling well. By the time she’s interviewed and tested in a couple of lab rooms, it’s no wonder she’s a bit wobbly when the doctor appears.

That’s why it’s important for you or a surrogate to be there. So that you can talk about the appointment ahead of time, ask helpful questions if your mom forgets, and write down the answers so she can focus on the doctor’s advice and instructions. These appointments are A Big Deal as our parents age, and successful outcomes to their health issues are critically important to their happiness. If it’s at all possible, we just can’t let them go alone, or be dropped off and picked up later.

It’s worth noting that more and more of my peers are frustrated at the frequency of appointments, and the necessity to use their cherished vacation days to cover them. “I’d love to go somewhere warm this spring, one said to me recently, “and I’m not talking about the radiation unit at UH.”

Michael Nock

Mike Nock is the founder of Thrive Westshore (thrivewestshore.com), which enhances the lives of retirees living at home. Previously he was founding director of an entrepreneurship program at Baldwin-Wallace University, and co-founder of Nock Inc, which for 23 years published customized nightly newsletters for institutional portfolio managers. Mr. Nock is a graduate of Williams College and St. Ignatius High School, and lives in Bay Village with his wife and two young children.

Volume 10, Issue 3, Posted 10:00 AM, 02.06.2018