Friday, February 26, 2010

Aging Parents: A Caring Touch

It's so natural to cuddle babies. Dr. Spock wrote in the 1940's, "when you hug him or make noises at him, when you show him that you think he's the most wonderful baby in the world, it makes his spirit grow, just the way milk makes his bones grow."

At the other end of the life cycle, do we nourish aging parents' spirits?

How often do aging parents receive a hug, a kiss, an affectionate squeeze? How often are they touched in a caring way, a way that conveys affection, a way that conveys shared joy? (Do loyal grandparents who attend every athletic competition get high-fives or a hug from jubilant grandchildren after the game?)

When parents can grow old together caring touches undoubtedly continue; but what about elderly parents who are living alone either because they never married or have lost their spouse?

I pose this question in the introduction to the "self-esteem section" in my yet-to-be-published book. And then, this past week, NY Times published an article, in the Health/Mind category, Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much.

While we realize some older people do remarry, in so many families there will be elderly family members, living alone for whom the warmth generated from a touch by children, nieces, nephews and other caring people will be in short supply.

Yet the Times article adds another aspect, telling us that the body interprets a supportive touch as "I'll share the load." This is the signal we get from a caring, affirming touch.

In sum, a caring touch can be a very positive, meaningful gesture for aging parents...a gesture in which all family members (and caring friends) can participate in order to add another ingredient to helping older parents age well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Helping Aging Parents: From Resistance to "On Board"

Four Words That Can Change Resistance to Compliance
"I need your help." These four words are powerful. They can do more to help aging parents do what's best and what's right than any other phrase I know. I learned the value of this phrase from a counseling colleague and have used it successfully in my counseling with temporarily irrational parents, difficult kids, and seemingly inflexible teachers and administrators.

And I've used it with strangers--to untangle airline reservations, to speak with a supervisor when all else was failing, and with family and friends-- when appropriate. I use this phrase only when I do need help. It has never disappointed.

"Why?" you ask. "And where does helping aging parents fit in?

Let's elaborate. When you say to someone "I need your help," the implied message is that the person you're speaking to is capable and that's flattering. People rarely turn down that simple request. (Contrast that with "can you help me?" Notice how it allows for refusal?)

"I need your help" also psychologically pulls the other person into your space giving him or her a vested interest in helping to resolve the problem. You've appealed to his or her ego (self-esteem) by admitting you need his or her help. This makes aging parents feel good and clearly not threatened, providing a nice way to begin a potentially difficult conversation. You and they become partners in solving the problem.

I don't believe we are our parents' parents...not until our parents ask us to take over or we know from a doctor that they are no longer capable of decision-making. So when adult children say "I need your help" to an aging parent, the mere statement is respectful and affirming.

"I need your help" is as applicable to the big issues, like driving or changing living arrangements, as it is to the smaller ones; but if we overuse it, it loses its effect--as we undoubtedly know. Parents don't like being talked down to, lectured to, or being told--point blank--what to do. "I need your help" is a good way to begin a thorny conversation. And I stress "begin." When you begin any other way, it dilutes what you're trying to accomplish.

So try the "I need your help" statement especially in a situation that you think parents may initially reject or resist, even though it's for their own good. When adult children can help their aging parents to buy into a solution, it's better for everyone--and sometimes generates worthwhile ideas no one thought of before. And when an adult child, who's trying to help aging parents, begins by admitting he or she needs their help, shouldn't the collaboration have a better chance for success?

PS. When life and limb are involved and parents are resistant, a parent's physician is often in the best position to makes suggestion, if "I need you help" should fail.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Aging Parents: Will Mean Stepmother Get Dad’s Money?

Aging Parent, Stepmother, Adult Children, Inheritance
(from an edited [to protect privacy] email, responded to individually of course)
Dear Susan,
There are issues regarding inheritance. My sister (who lives in another state) and I don’t know how to approach our 90-year-old father and get around our stepmother, in order to have meaningful conversations and avoid confrontation and any kind of negatives! We have not been successful thus far, and wonder if we need to hire a family attorney to document our issues and help us look out for our interests. Dad is private, accustomed to having things his way, and aging fast. Unfortunately he is married to a mean, difficult woman. Can you give us some help?
* * *
This situation is such a common aging parent situation when “mean” stepmothers are involved; and it’s never easy. It also sounds like the father is a man who doesn’t want to give up control and--if I’m correct--speaking with him would, I think, need to be attempted by whichever child has the best relationship with him--at an unemotional time when they’re alone--obviously.
This kind of conversation, in my counseling experience, never goes well unless the person initiating the conversation can feel comfortable doing so. Easier said than done. If such a conversation is attempted, I think it’s preferable if it can be attached to something NOT emotionally charged. For example, last fall when Brooke Astor’s estate was in the news—it could perhaps have provided a springboard for the conversation (as it did for my October post about wills). Astor news 2/23/10 Note update
If, in this case, the sisters decide one of them will speak with their father and he’s the kind of man who values control, I think it would be important for an underlying theme in the conversation to be respect for him and for his decisions. She should trust her instincts, assuming they have served her well in the past, and if she senses nastiness in the offing she might do well to back off.
Because in my limited experience I know that the law is the law and if the father is of sound mind when the will is drawn up, as far as I know, contesting it only creates nastiness and changes nothing—sadly. But an attorney is the one to speak to about that.
The highly regarded attorney who advised for the October post, read the above and added the following information concerning provisions for an aging parent’s adult children and the stepmother. “One possible solution, he said, “is for the father, in this case, to have attorneys set up a trust for the stepmother during her lifetime, with the remainder going to the father’s adult children upon the stepmother’s death.”
I hope this information will be helpful to many adult children and to their aging parents as well.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Aging Parents: The Pressure of Time

Organized aging parents--their comfort zone: no surprises, they value planning ahead.
With thanks to Senior Advisor R, today's post focuses on the mode some aging parents prefer to live their life in.

R has errands and I plan to pick her up. Trying to be considerate of an aged parent I suggest we aim for 11am. Said I would phone around 9:30.       “You can call as early as 7,” she said. “What I don’t want to do is have to rush. If you wake me, it’s fine. I’ll have the information and can go back to sleep. I don’t want to rush to get ready….and that’s something you should put in your blog so adult children will realize at a certain point, aging parents don’t like to rush."
R. elaborates--says she can't speak for all aging parents, but being on time is important to her. (Although in her 90's, she still goes out a lot.) To do that comfortably, however, it takes time--more time than most of us would spend getting ready. 
I think it's safe to say most--if not all--of us realize older people slow down; they simply take more time than younger people to do things. It's why R likes to plan well ahead. (Doesn't like surprises, she says.) No doubt it gives her a feeling of control which, of course, supports independence. So I will telephone R once I know when I can pick her up--even as early as 7am.
I got to thinking: I, like most of us, live life on fast forward the majority of the time. Too much to do, not enough time to do it in. I probably rush unconsciously. I try to organize and structure my time, but something unforeseen gets squeezed into my schedule more often than not.  It's the way life is today.  In spite of that, scheduling time to be with R is sacrosanct. I let nothing get in the way. 
So I’ll be mindful of not speeding on the freeway to her home, even if I’m rushing to be on time. I don’t want to keep her waiting--not one minute; but then again, I must admit I’d hate to get a speeding ticket.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Help Aging Parents Look Better Part 3

An Aging Parent’s Figure: Clothes That Fit

Can you wear those jeans you wore in high school? What about the dress or shorts you wore in college, the wedding gown or tux fitted specially for that big occasion?

Shapes change and many style conscious men and women pay attention and make the effort to look good the moment they’re aware that their clothes are no longer fitting or flattering. On the other hand, waning energy and less good eyesight can lead to poorly fitting clothes without our parents noticing or doing anything about it

If we see that our parents are neglecting to make the effort to look good, we can try the strategies suggested in the last two posts. If those don’t resonate, having clothes tailored by a tailor or dressmaker is a third option, especially when parents hate parting with clothing.

Adult children who live near aging parents, can assess some of their clothing with them and mutually decide on the clothing that can use an “adjustment.” With the exception of those handy with a needle and thread and a sewing machine, having a professional do alterations on selected articles of clothing is no doubt less expensive than purchasing new clothes and can do wonders to remove the frumpy-dumpy look. So aren't alterations worth a try?

Since Valentine’s Day is here, the opportunity for a small wardrobe update is also here. Assuming a Valentine's gift of new clothing hasn't been given already, does a Valentine-IOU-gift of new clothing or clothing alterations make sense?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Help Aging Parents Look Better Part 2

Aging and Appearance: A Personal Shopper for Aging Parents? Who? You?
Z at age three in North Carolina already has favorite clothes...and favorite colors: pink and red. Ideas about what we wear seem to begin early. Yet not everyone is clothes conscious with a priority of looking good. Our Prada parents are, but aging parents in the Dumpy group probably aren't.

Some aging parents would dress to improve their appearance if:
--they could easily get to a store (addressed in last post),
--they thought they had the money to buy new clothes,
--trying on clothes in fitting rooms didn't take so much effort,
--they had confidence in their taste in clothing.
So what's a child to do when he or she wants to ensure that aging parents look good, are less apt to be treated as "old" by strangers and have healthy self-esteem?

Take on the role of a personal shopper of course. Thankless? Perhaps. Professional personal shoppers get paid for their time on the job, have benefits if they're employed by a store, and develop a loyal following if they do a good job. Adult children will forgo all of these rewards. Never-the-less, having parents who feel good about themselves pays other dividends such as contributing to their adult children's peace of mind.

Older people may think a dated, perhaps ill-fitting, comfortable wardrobe is adequate. Those of us who hate to part with worn, comfortable shoes can understand this. So a key thought is to get parents to buy into the idea of your shopping to add whatever they'd like to their wardrobe. One 80-something-year-old widow said I would love it if my son said, "Mother, I'd like to buy you a new blue sweater...unless you'd prefer another color." She liked the idea of a new sweater, she said, and blue was her favorite color. But being given a choice appealed to her. That, of course, is a small start. But don't many things begin with a small start?

The more information we have about color, size, and style the more successful we can be. We also benefit from knowing about any physical conditions that affect aging parents' clothing choice. For example, I remember a designer two-piece outfit on sale that became a real bargain when the coupon I had further reduced the price. It was Mother's favorite color, her size. I bought it and had it sent to her, never realizing she had become self-conscious about her arms. To this day I don't know if it was because they had become thin, wrinkled, flabby or what. And I was unaware she had stopped wearing clothes with short sleeves until she told me. Lesson learned. Ask your parents not only about preferences but also about things to avoid. Then make certain to know about a store's policy on "returns."

Since we want to avoid taking over anything while our parents are mentally capable (unless we want to create dependency), collaborating (a popular concept today) with parents makes sense. Initially it takes more time. Eventually we see what works and what doesn't and develop the instincts of a professional personal shopper.

Who knows? We may decide to give up our day job! What we do know is that we can help aging parents to look good. And that never goes out of style.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Help Aging Parents Look Better

Aging and Appearance: Shopping for Clothes

Today’s focus: helping aging parents in the middle group—those between Prada and Dumpy—to look better. That’s the group Eloise, an unforgettable friend of my parents going back to high school and college days, compared to an old car.

In her mid-eighties, she laughingly told me: First, the rear view mirror comes loose, next there’s a dent in the fender. Then the tail pipe falls off. Not major problems for older people really, they just need a little fixing and a paint job, she quipped. The paint job, while painless, does require thought and planning.

* * * *

Energy is a prime consideration when shopping with aging parents. If we tire them out, they may never attempt it again. And for our own well being it makes sense to factor in our available time. We want to avoid pressure caused by time constraints if the shopping experience is to be a good one.

If a younger woman announces “I’m shopped out,” to her friend as they emerge from the dressing rooms, arms full of clothing, what’s it like for much older men and women to go shopping, especially those who don't--or no longer--make the effort to dress better?

R’s wig shopping experience can provide an insight and a model. Initially it took a few tries to settle on the day. An unexpected problem occurred, thus we had to reschedule. While flexibility on our part is important, having a plan in place is more than important. It’s a necessity. It saves time and prevents “running out of steam.” R planned the schedule with me. She knows herself well and decided one wig shop, a break for lunch, then the cancer center’s open-to-non-patients, well-known wig shop was all she could handle at age 96. It all worked. When our goal is realistic and we accomplish it, we feel good!

Because we had a specific goal, going to a mall wasn’t in our plan. However to save time and energy, shopping at a mall with parents is practical. Weather isn't an issue and parents get some exercise without walking huge distances. If we prepare ahead--deciding what new clothing is most needed/wanted, where we think we can buy it and where we want to eat--it works! And it can be fun too.

Although R doesn't wear them, good looking, elastic waist pantsuits are comfortable and easy to find for aging mothers with less-than-perfect figures. And there are slacks with adjustable waistbands, for aging fathers, that look great. These may be excellent choices to replace comfortable, baggy sweat pants (or worse) especially when parents go out.

Since we know nothing succeeds like success, a successful shopping trip can trigger an older parent’s interest in his or her appearance. When old people look good, the chances for demeaning remarks from strangers decrease and the chances for compliments increase. And while we might not realize it, our aging parents don’t get that many compliments any more. So when they make the effort to wear new clothes and look good, we need to recognize that and tell them. Who doesn't like a legitimate compliment! And it reinforces behavior (in this case looking good) too.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Aging Parents: P is for Prada; D is for Dumpy

Aging and Appearance: Clothes

Suddenly it happens! We find ourselves talking about our aging parents, like we used to talk about our children. “My mother is 90, stylish, has a Prada handbag,” says one adult daughter.

Think back. We recall that not all parents could honestly brag about their children, just as not all adult children can brag about their aging parents. Some parents will age gracefully and well and their adult children will be proud; others won’t and this often causes problems. Then there’s always a large group in the middle. That group is the focus of today's post and several to follow.

If our relatively independent aging parents fall into that middle group when it comes to dress/style, let’s consider how we can ensure--without sounding critical--that they always look well-put-together. By doing this we accomplish two goals:

--One, people are more apt to react positively to aging parents who looks "in order" than to a frumpy, dumpy looking aging individual, because people react initially to what they see. This in turn can enhance parental self-esteem and even confidence as opposed to diminishing it.

--Two, when we look better, we feel better and when we feel better, we look better. I think this is true for most--if not all--of us. So if we want to help parents age well, there's a lot to be gained if they look well-put together.

It's pretty easy for young people to look relatively good. But as people age, looking good takes more energy, more time, and more attention to detail than we might realize. The older they get, "the harder it gets" according to my eighty and ninety-year-old advisors. Clothing styles need to be age appropriate or they look silly, or they may be dated. (Sometimes it's hard to part with old clothes.) And clothes must fit properly to avoid the saggy, baggy, poorly-proportioned look that we often see. Sweat pants, which usually look fine on younger people, may feel good but can be unflattering to aging figures.

When we know it's in their best interest, yet we don't want to seem controlling or critical, how do we encourage aging parents to take pride in their appearance?

--We can go shopping with them and make it a fun occasion.

--We can become their personal shopper, with their permission, and bring them a selection of clothing to choose from (then return what's not wanted).

--We can have a dress maker or tailor fit their current clothing to their changing/changed figure (taking in, letting out, shortening etc.).

--We can gift them with clothing on special occasions: three that come quickly to mind are birthdays, Mother's and Father's Days, and Christmas or Chanukah.

Give thought to these ideas. Saturday's post will elaborate.