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“But Why Aren’t My Parents Making Better Decisions?”

It's bewildering for adult children to suddenly take charge for their parents.

Key points

  • Our loved ones are autonomous people who have made their own decisions for a long time.
  • Yet people wisely plan for the day they may be less able to make complex decisions.
  • Assuming the role they named for you is in service to your loved one, even if the decisions seem impossible.
  • There is no such thing as perfect caregiving, but there is loving caregiving.

When I described the evolving situation with my parents to a woman next to me in line at the grocery store, I told her that they weren't making the decisions that would make them safer and make life easier. The woman worked in elder care, so I assumed she would validate my position outright, especially since my distress was so visible to anyone who talked to me. I did not expect that she would shake me into a whole new way of thinking.

"No," she said, "you are not making the decisions that would make them safer and make life easier."

My face said everything: What? But who am I?

"They made a decision a long time ago when they were clear of mind that they trusted you to make decisions when things got harder. They expected that you would step in to do the things that needed to be done. You are the one who needs to make decisions. You are the one you're waiting for."

It was true. They'd drafted the paperwork for healthcare directives years before they would need any help. I knew this in an impersonal way, not as the call to action that it had become. It seemed as though it happened overnight: I was a kid, and then I was the adult child who needed to make (or heavily influence) decisions that may not always be popular and would certainly never be perfect.

This shift continued to happen, not just once, but as each ability waned from day to day or week to week. There was no sense in establishing a "new norm" because the norm was always changing. It was more comfortable to expect a certain amount of chaos than to pretend it could be completely prevented.

FatCamera / iStock
It is a transition to provide care for someone who has always been your caregiver.
Source: FatCamera / iStock

Knowing when to intervene

There are risks inherent in caregiving too much, too soon. In doing so, a person may unintentionally infantilize their loved one, effectively wrapping them in bubble wrap in pursuit of zero risk, which is a costly proposition indeed. When we intervene too early and too heavily, we chip away at our loved one's autonomy while giving away our own. Sometimes, caregiving is keeping a careful but watchful distance.

Then again, there are risks inherent in caregiving that is too little, too late—in evading our responsibility to our loved ones. We are not accustomed to them needing help; they've always spoken for themselves, and surely, they will continue to do so without inhibition... Alas, they are also not accustomed to needing help. They may not have incorporated the new data about themselves, even if they survived that fall or experienced that increase in weakness. We all fall prey to rationalization, even (and especially) when it's to our own detriment.

The day that a person realizes they really are the ones in charge—not as a dictator, but as the chief caregiving coordinator—everything changes. They always knew you were up to the task, and now is the time.

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