When your aging parents aren’t living as healthfully as you’d like,
it can create a stressful situation – for them and you. Here’s how to cope.
As the youngest son of an 81-year-old father and a mother in her 70s, Steve Zahn has been worrying
about his aging parents’ health for a long time. A personal trainer in St. Paul, Minn., he’s been
trying for years to wean them from the processed food that dominates their diets, while urging them to
get some exercise.
It hasn’t been easy. Since his 20s, Zahn, 34, traveled regularly to visit his parents 300 miles
away in Campbellsport, Wis. Once there, he'd cook a healthy meal, monitor his parents’ various ailments
and lament his inability to convince them to change their ways.
“When I became a trainer, I would
give them suggestions all the time - advice that many of my clients pay for – and all it seemed to do at
first was to alienate them,” says Zahn. Eventually, Zahn backed off, but he says it’s still hard
to know where to draw the line between helping, pleading and nagging.
Like an increasing number of 30 – and 40 – somethings who understand the value of a healthy lifestyle, Zahn faces
the daunting challenge of attempting to educate and influence aging parents who may have never given much
thought to diet or exercise. Particularly for those of us who are nursing a realistic fear that the care of
our less-than-vital parents will someday become our responsibility, the investment we make in our parents’
well-being may be as great – or even greater – than the investment we make in our own health.
The specter of caring for aging parents who are not actively caring for themselves can
create a complex and sticky dynamic that can test the bonds of even the most loving family and saddle adult
children with high levels of frustration and anxiety. Yet, many experts say, a commitment to realistic
expectations, clear boundaries and a respectful approach can not only help us try to improve our parents’
quality of life, it can also reduce stress in our own lives by clarifying what we can – and cannot – control.
Forging a New Relationship
For many of us, the role reversal of learning to parent our parents doesn’t come easily. And it’s not much
easier for our folks, most of whom are ambivalent at best about having individuals whom they once diapered
now take it upon themselves to critique their daily patterns, preferences and habits of living.
The first step toward approaching such parents, says Harold Bloomfield, MD, author of Making Peace with Your Parents: The Key to Enriching Your Life and All Your Relationships (Ballantine Books, 1996), is to compassionately acknowledge your own situation. “Often, you’re having to deal with an aging parent at a time in life when you’re focused on developing your career, or perhaps raising young children, so you’re already feeling strapped,” he says. It’s important to take stock of your own feelings and limitations and to process your impressions thoughtfully before attempting to address your parents directly (see “The Right Way to Help,” below, for suggestions).
Next, set realistic expectations. “It’s important to have an honest discussion with your parents about their needs, where you’d like to see them be, and what you can truly help deliver,” Bloomfield says. In other words, don’t expect a miracle – from your parents or yourself. For example, if your parents have never exercised or eaten well, don’t expect them to run a half-marathon next year or adopt a totally plant-based diet. Zahn, for instance, has learned that progress is measured by small steps: “My parents claimed that they got their water from Diet Coke and coffee, so just getting them to drink a glass of good water a day was an important first step.”
Keep in mind that you needn’t (and shouldn’t) try to handle this problem all by yourself: Ask for help from family and friends before you get to a breaking point.
“Many families find that the bulk of caregiving duties and related stress fall on the shoulders of one or two of the siblings,” says Clare Absher, a registered nurse who has created a Web site (www.carepathways.com) to help families care for elderly relatives. “Instead, make caring for aging parents a family affair with everyone involved in some capacity. Create a team-effort approach through family discussions to determine each member’s responsibilities, taking into account their strengths and weaknesses.”
No matter how awkward, it’s important to have frank discussions with your parents about their health, and to help them understand the ways it ultimately affects the entire family. Play out scenarios with your parents (for example, ask your parents where they see themselves in five years) that might help to break the ice and lead to a specific, honest discussion about their health needs, as well as your anxiety about meeting these needs.
Remember, too, suggests San Diego–based executive wellness coach and consultant Richard Cotton, “Older people know themselves,” so it’s important to listen first, and then ask permission before making a suggestion.
Nonetheless, it can be hard for some parents to take advice directly from their kids, so consider suggesting a health coach or other expert from whom advice might be more welcome. AARP suggests looking to hospitals, volunteer organizations and community service agencies for appropriate training programs on nutrition, exercise and elder care.
“Discussing all options will help relieve your anxiety,” says social psychologist Susan Newman, PhD, author of Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father (Walker and Company, 2003), “because when you feel like you’ve done everything you can do, the situation becomes less stressful.”
Of course, despite all our best efforts, our parents may still refuse to change their ways. Even if we manage to create an opening for a well-meaning conversation, Zahn notes, “The window of receptiveness may close fast.” And when that happens, we have to take it in stride – even if that means waiting weeks or months for a fresh opportunity or change of heart.
Remember, your parents may not be any more prepared for your new “helpful” role in their lives than you are for their aging. “Think of yourself as being on your parents’ board of advisers instead of being their board of directors,” says Bloomfield. “It’s important that you offer input to your parents without becoming overly attached to them complying. You do your best and then you let go.”
Newman agrees: “Ultimately, it’s really up to the parent to decide.”
The Right Way to Help
Trying to influence your parents' lifestyle habits can result in a surprising amount of stress and anxiety. The following ideas may help you cope – and get better results:
First, take care of you. Eat right, exercise and get enough sleep. When we don't care for ourselves, says executive wellness coach Richard Cotton, we risk getting more stressed. And if you break down, you can't be much help to anyone else.
Enlist support. Don't be shy about calling on family, friends and community resources. If you can hire help or expertise, do.
Open new channels. Whether you suggest a health coach or give your parents a good article or book to read, it can be easier for parents to take suggestions from someone other than their child.
Be frank. It's important to be straight-forward in addressing your parents' current and future health needs – and your concerns about meeting those needs.
Keep your perspective. Keep in mind that older people tend to change slowly. And remember that your parents are ultimately responsible for their own choices – even if those choices affect you in distressing ways. Focus on the things that are within your control and make peace with what you cannot change.