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CARING FOR AGING PARENTS

How to have 'the talk'

Understanding and diplomacy when suggesting lifestyle changes can be vital, experts on aging say.

February 06, 2012|Melissa Healy

Fear silences many grown children from having these conversations until it is too late for negotiation, experts say. And that may suit aging parents: According to a 2004 study conducted by the Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and MIT's AgeLab, half of older drivers who are still married would rather hear about driving concerns from a spouse. In addition, more than 4 in 10 older drivers living alone would prefer to have these concerns raised by their physician, as would a third of such drivers who are married.

Having "the talk" with a son or daughter consistently came in last. When they did have those talks with their kids, older drivers tended to prefer to hear it from children who live close by and are more in tune with their driving habits.

David Barg, who edits a magazine and website devoted to caregivers, calls the talk about car keys "caregiver kryptonite." It can stay the tongue of even the most assertive child or render him powerless in the face of a cornered, furious parent clinging to his freedom and dignity.

That's probably just as well, Barg says. "If you walk in cold and say, 'Give me your keys,' you're not just saying, 'I want you off the road.' You're saying, 'I want to infantilize you. I want to take away your independence. I am in control.' And that is not the conversation you want to have."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 07, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Aging parent: An article in the Feb. 6 Health section on how to talk to aging parents about their care incorrectly identified the editor in chief of Today's Caregiver as David Barg. His first name is Gary.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, February 13, 2012 Home Edition Health & Wellness Part E Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Aging parents: An article in the Feb. 6 Health section on how to talk to aging parents about their care incorrectly identified the editor in chief of Today's Caregiver as David Barg. His first name is Gary.

Ideally, says gerontologist Dugan, the "driving talk" is not one conversation but a series of them, begun well before there are unexplained dings on the car, tickets in the mail or an accident. This can take some of the pressure off of adult children. "It isn't a one-shot deal," she says.

A near-miss might spark a discussion -- or even better, an admission by the older driver of some minor trouble on the road, like getting lost on the way home or being honked at by impatient drivers.

What many caregivers don't account for is that "many times, our loved ones already know" that they are not as competent behind the wheel as they used to be, Barg says. They are uncomfortable driving on highways, fearful of driving at night and confused by dense traffic and have begun to scale back their driving accordingly. That's when an attentive caregiver can take the first steps to easing an older driver into the passenger seat.

The initial conversations should acknowledge the measures that an older adult has already taken to stay safe, experts say. Then the caregiver can step in with well-researched options for alternate transport and assure an elderly driver that his ability to see friends, get to the doctor and continue with other activities around town is a priority. Later, after the car has sat unused for several months, a caregiver can tally the cost of keeping the vehicle insured and registered and show a parent how much taxi fare or bus service that money could buy.

At the same time, Solie says, it's appropriate to "draw a line in the sand" that makes clear what the stakes are.

"We tell our parents, 'None of us can burn the house down, and we can't kill people driving,'" he says. If parents insist on living on their own, they'll have to compromise for the sake of safety: "We all have the same laws of the universe operating over us.'"

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Working together

Many baby boomers make the mistake of thinking of their new responsibilities as a role reversal. But that's not only wrong, Solie says, it's a formula for failure.

"We're not parenting our parents, we're partnering with our parents, " he says. "You tell them, 'I think you want to have as much independence as possible, and my job is to help you weigh both sides.'"

For adult children like Solie who try to muscle their way into the caregiver role, that sometimes means slowing down and apologizing. "There's nothing wrong with going back and saying, 'I was wrong. This is your life, and you're in control.'"

That admission can produce a sudden thaw, he has found: "Mom or Dad says, 'I don't have to fight this kid for control. This kid speaks to me with respect.' And they come alongside."

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melissa.healy@latimes.com

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