Adult children visit their aging parents for the holidays and discover a refrigerator full of spoiled food, stacks of unopened mail and a parent who seems alarmingly frail or confused. A closer look at the finances reveals unpaid bills or, worse yet, a bank account depleted by scammers.
In online forums for caregivers dealing with dementia, examples of this are abundant. One person describes a house overflowing with clutter and aged parents who were going up and down an unlighted basement stairway to do the laundry. Someone else relates her shock at seeing her father’s house fall into disrepair as he became more disabled.
Can adult children be so disconnected or so deep in denial that they don’t see what’s happening to their own parents?
Sometimes that’s the case. But let’s not be too quick to judge, because there can be a considerable gap between how older adults present themselves to the world and how they truly fare on a day-to-day basis.
“As the child who lived close by when my parents were still in their home and having siblings who lived far away, there may be a lot more going on in their home than you may be aware of,” wrote a member of an online Alzheimer’s forum.
This family felt their father’s cognitive skills were fine. But “there was a lot going on behind the scenes with them that they hid well,” she wrote.
In fact, it’s far from unusual for older adults to hide their struggles with health, cognition and daily life from those around them. And it’s far from unusual for adult children or other relatives to have difficulty gauging the severity of the situation or knowing when to take action.
Carolyn Rosenblatt, a contributor to Forbes who writes about healthy aging and caregiving, describes a typical scenario:
The signs are subtle at first. The brain-destroying disease that creeps up unannounced and steals your loved one comes in disguise. “Maybe he’s just getting old”, you tell yourself.
Your aging parent may have noticed being unable to remember things for some time. Dad will compensate by changing the subject, or finding some other words to replace the ones he can’t find. But he might just stop in the middle of a sentence. He works at covering up the problem.
Mom will insist she’s fine. She knows she isn’t but doesn’t want you to find out. She’ll do anything to keep her memory loss a secret. She fears you’ll put her in a home. To her, that’s a death sentence.
When the adult children live far away and can’t – or don’t – visit their parents often, which is increasingly the case for many families, it becomes even more challenging for them to accurately assess the situation.
The issue can be compounded by reluctance or refusal to talk about what’s really going on, leading to significant gaps in knowledge and, by extension, readiness for caregiving. When The Boomer Project conducted a survey for Home Instead Senior Care a few years ago, only about one in 10 of the adult children who responded were realistic about the likelihood of being thrust unexpectedly into caring for their parents.
Nor were they well informed about their parents’ health. Only about half were knowledgeable about their parents’ medical conditions or could name any of the medications their parents took. Forty percent didn’t know the name of their parents’ primary care doctor or whether their parents even had a primary care doctor.
At this time of year, providers of services to older adults start receiving a barrage of phone calls from worried adult children who come home for the holidays and discover their parents aren’t doing as well as they thought.
Older adults and their grown children may think that as long as everything seems OK, there’s no need to plan for the future. But this mindset can lead to a family crisis, experts say.
Waiting for “the right time” to have a honest, respectful discussion with aging parents about their needs won’t cut it, because it can be too late sooner than you think, Rosenblatt writes. “You don’t want to be the one lulled into a false sense of security because no one has diagnosed your aging parent with a specific form of dementia. It doesn’t matter. Trust your own eyes and ears. If your gut tells you there’s something wrong here with your loved one, there probably is something wrong.”
Tips for starting sensitive conversations
Recognizing the difference between ordinary forgetfulness and signs of dementia