The other day, under the guise of research for this story, I asked my daughter a question: "Holly, when I am an old woman, would you want me to live with you and your family?" Things got kind of awkward when she replied, "A little bit of yes and a little bit of no." Holly is nine. Although taken aback because I had been expecting a resounding "Yes!" and maybe a big weepy hug, I realized that even at her tender age she sensed this was a complicated issue.
With seniors constituting one of the fastest growing groups in Canada, (by the year 2031, seniors will make up to 25 percent of the Canadian population, according to Statistics Canada), where our aging parents will live is an issue that many of us should be thinking about -- sooner rather than later. If you are considering having your senior parent(s) move in with you and your family, here are some ways to help make it work.
Before you renovate, talk to your parent
Sobering news: Your parents may not actually want to live with you. Janice Keefe is the Canada Research Chair in Aging and Caregiving Policy at the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging. "Most older parents are not exactly thrilled about moving in with their children.
It's not always convenient for your parents," says Keefe. A recent survey done in Atlantic Canada revealed that for most seniors, living independently in their own home for as long as possible is a priority. Rev. Kate Crawford of Gower Street United in St. John's, Nfld., says, "the sense I have from people here is that they've almost failed when they have to capitulate and move in."
Heal your relationships
Are you still spitting nails over the Christmas of 1989? Seething over how unfair that thing that time was? The best predictor of success in an elderly parent living with adult children is everything that has happened before you set up camp together. "The nature of your relationship with your parents all along is one big factor," says Dr. Elaine Gallagher, director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria. "The odds of it working out if you've had a good relationship with your parents over the years are much better than if it's been strained, or old hurts haven't been resolved or there have been years of poor communication." Concentrate on healing your relationships now.
Make plans before it's a crisis Too often it's a crisis like Dad having a stroke or Mom breaking a hip that precipitates a sudden move -- often straight from a hospital bed into the home of an adult child. "Often you don't get a chance to prepare," says Crawford. Gallagher advises families not to "wait till a crisis when it's the only option available. Doing advance planning before a crisis occurs is priority number one." A family conference, including all the adult children of the senior (and, ideally, don't forget the senior) is ideal. At that meeting, be realistic about who is best suited to accommodate your parent when and if the time comes, and what tasks the rest of the gang can take on to share the work -- and the joy.
Establish ground rules
Wendy Thesis is a member of St. John's on the Hill United in Cambridge, Ont. She and her husband, John, welcomed his elderly father into their Kitchener, Ont., home 14 years ago. "It's been a wonderful experience for my children," says Thesis. It has worked out, partly because they all sat down and agreed on some rules before Dad moved in. "You have to set down boundaries. The grandparent cannot, for example, become the disciplinarian of the children," says Thesis. Misunderstandings can arise over issues such as personal habits, "why Grandma is up at the crack of dawn, or why teenage Joe needs 30 minutes to take a shower," says Keefe. Married couples welcoming a parent into their home also need to be clear about their own rules. Gallagher says it is typical for much of the physical caregiving to fall to the woman in the family "regardless whose parent it is."
Work out the nuts and bolts
Audrey Cook, 82, of Cheltenham, Ont., is the widow of a United Church minister and has lived with her daughter and family for seven years. "I iron all my son-in-law's shirts. He cuts the grass. And that is how we get along," she explains. "I have certain bills I pay. We each bring in groceries that we like to eat and so forth." In Thesis's situation with her father-in-law, another sibling has taken on the elder's finances "because we knew it could be a very real problem" in family dynamics. Again, upfront and ongoing communication is essential. Families may choose to have an impartial third party like a lawyer or financial adviser involved in any decisions around the financial implications of an elderly parent moving in.
Remember to honour thy parent Honouring your elderly mother may mean you go out so her bridge club can come over. For Thesis, it has meant preparing a meal and letting Dad serve it to his buddies. "We've had barbecues where we've been in the background helping, but Dad is hosting it," says Thesis. "You really need to make sure you have every opportunity for that social structure to stay in place."
Another practical side to honouring your elders is not treating them like children, which, for some reason, we are inclined to do. "Have a lot of respect for an elderly person's intelligence," says Gallagher. "Respect their wisdom and their right to make decisions about things. They are giving up some of their rights in your home, and probably their possessions, so try to build in as many meaningful choices as possible so they don't feel they are giving up the essence of who they are."
Call in the church
Crawford reminds adult children that most congregations have a minister of visitation or pastoral care. Call that person and invite him or her to tea with your mom, especially if your parent finds those wooden pews have become too hard. "Those folks who lived and breathed their church communities their whole lives need their church to remember them and care for them." Adult children can help nurture their parents' faith life by making sure they have every opportunity to express it.
Ask Thesis if she's glad she opened her home to her father-in-law, and she doesn't miss a beat: "I would not have had it any other way." And Cook says, "It's the best thing I could have done." Opening your home to senior parents is no small thing for either of you. It means a reconstruction of everyone's life and maybe even your actual house. "Jesus often calls us in ways we don't like. That's true of the elder person who has to ask for help, as much as for the adult child who has to rearrange his or her life to accommodate this person," says Crawford. "If we can welcome it as part of our calling, it can change the experience utterly and make it holy for us."
Writing this article has made me think about my own United Church parents in Malagash, N.S. I believe that if I asked them if they wanted to someday move in with my large, noisy family, they would probably pause and reply, "A little bit of yes and a little bit of no." And I guess that's a pretty good answer after all.
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