It is a reality that if we live long enough, eventually we will need help. This, of course, goes for our parents as well who we have always seen as strong, vibrant, and independent. It is difficult to see our parents become more needy and dependent.
What to look for
As your parents age, keep an eye on their actions to see if you can detect certain deficits. It could be physical limitations (not being able to walk up and down stairs or move around the home safely) or it could be a loss in memory or cognition (forgetting to pay bills, repeating stories or getting lost while driving). These may be early signs of dementia that is best diagnosed as early as possible. Or it could be something less serious like a urinary track infection (UTI) that can be easily treated. Many things can cause a decline in cognition, some temporary and some permanent.
Have a discussion
Having a discussion with your parents about their care and limitations is easy to say but not always easy to do. Many people do not see their deficits as clearly as an objective outsider since there is a degree of denial and refusal. This is normal and the topic needs to be approached more subtly than “hey dad, sorry but you can't drive anymore!” Try to be less direct, and a bit more tactful. Be patient but persistent. This is true regarding their finances as well and knowing what assets they own and where the assets are located. Many people become disabled or die with the family unaware of where all the bank accounts are located. According to the Treasury Department, the State of New Jersey currently has $5.1 billion in unclaimed funds!
Plan for the future
It is extremely important that you look into whether your parents not only have updated wills, but whether they have Powers of Attorney and Living Wills. These two documents are very important if your parents should lose the mental capacity to make decisions for themselves, both in terms of their finances and medical decision making. Without a Power of Attorney and Living Will in place, a family may be required to file for guardianship over a parent which is expensive and emotionally upsetting to the entire family. A guardianship is a court action that requires two doctors to submit reports that the person is unfit and unable to manage his or her affairs. This is in Court Rule 4:86. The person alleged to be incapacitated will also be appointed an attorney to represent them so this is an additional cost. A judge then must rule on whether the person is incapacitated and if so, who should be the guardian. This is fertile ground for deeply rooted familial conflict to manifest. In most cases, a guardianship can be avoided by having these planning documents in place.
Bring in help
Finally, if you see your parents becoming more needy, it is good to try and bring in outside help as early as possible so that your parents get accustomed to accepting help from third-parties. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen elderly people forced into a care facility because they refuse to have care-givers in their home. Much of this is cultural and people cherish their independence, but that is why you need to try and integrate outside help as soon as possible so that a new family culture can be established. It can start, for instance, by having meals-on-wheels stop by a few days a week. Outside assistance also serves as a respite for younger family members who are also caring for their children and trying to earn a living. Care giving requires a tremendous effort and you are not failing your parents by asking for help. This is not the time to be a martyr or super person. Find help and get your parents to accept help. That is half the battle.
We love our parents and will do anything for them. But eventually they will need assistance and the best thing you can do is intervene as soon as possible, even if it is simply taking baby steps assisting them with seemingly simple tasks. Watch and listen to what they tell you and you will learn a lot. The key is consistency and constant communication, wrapped, of course, in a genuine sense of care and compassion.