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Aging as a family team – How to support seniors as a partner in caregiving

April 15th, 2014

Watching a spouse decline physically and mentally is hard.  After years of perfecting a balance of give and take, division of tasks, and most importantly trust and friendship, a spouse may find it nearly impossible to admit that their wife or husband’s health is deteriorating and that they need help.  Many couples make early promises to each other about privacy and respect and feel that it is a betrayal if they reveal to friends, family or a medical professional that their loved one is not who they once were and that help is needed.  I hear stories such as these from the families with whom I work.  This is an excerpt from my upcoming book:

Martha noticed that her mother was showing signs of cognitive loss at least one year before her mother saw her physician.  Martha mentioned these signs to her father repeatedly but he was resistant to discussing the reality of what was happening.  Martha’s knee jerk reaction to was to drop the topic because of her father’s discomfort but she knew that early intervention was important for the entire family system so she persisted and ignored her reservations.

“To get my mother diagnosed, I kept talking to my dad saying, “dad, there is a problem.  Mom keeps forgetting.  You have to take her to the doctor.”  He would just say, “yeah, yeah, I will,” but of course, he didn’t.  Finally, one time I asked my dad if he wanted me to call the doctor and before I had the sentence out of my mouth he said yes. I realized in that moment that he thought if he called the doctor and revealed the problems he would be betraying my mother.  I called the doctor, who didn’t know me from a hole in the ground, and the doctor didn’t want to talk to me.  I told her that I knew it was confidential but that I was calling to tell her something and that the next time my mother went into the office she could evaluate her.  Sure enough, that’s what got the ball rolling.”

Martha felt relieved when the doctor completed the evaluation and gave her mother a diagnosis.  That experience helped to mobilize help from the doctor and it started a different relationship dynamic between Martha and her father in that they were both caring for Martha’s mom as a team.  It helped to minimize the isolation that her father had been feeling during the previous year.  Martha’s mother was not alone in her illness.  Their early openness helped to foster communication with each other and with other Village members.

At times you must repeat and revisit your concerns with family members before they will accept help. Sometimes, offering to take the first step in asking for help can mobilize support and bridge family and other team member relationships.  Don’t give up with your family.  An offer of support may not be considered initially but over time it may be welcomed.

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