How to Visit Your Aging Parent the Right Way

Taking a different approach can make things better for both of you
By Emily Gurnon for Next Avenue
Credit: Thinkstock
Katherine Arnup, a retired professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and now life coach, got an education in caregiving when her sister and parents got sick. She later became a hospice volunteer. 
Arnup writes about the importance of being “being present” when you visit an aging parent. The following is excerpted from one of the book’s chapters.
Settle In, Look Around
When you arrive to visit your parents, take the time to get settled. It might help to take a few deep intentional breaths before you open the door to their house or apartment.
Once inside, resist the urge to start blathering on and on just to fill the void, or to cover up your discomfort or nervousness. Listen. Observe. How does the house or apartment look? What changes do you notice since your last visit? Is your father wearing clothes with obvious stains? Are there a week’s worth of papers stacked up beside his chair? What might this mean? Is it typical? Might it be a hazard?
Not Your House
Because of our discomfort, we often fall into the habit of cleaning up, putting things “back in their place,” or throwing things out that we consider to be garbage or recycling. These actions are likely to cause unnecessary frustration and confusion for your parents. They know where everything is now, and you’re only disrupting that order.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s their house, not yours. I’m not suggesting you ignore signs of distress or mental confusion. But you would do well to respect the fact that you’re still a visitor in someone else’s house.
Silence Is OK
When I was visiting my father, I used to sit down on the loveseat next to his chair, set down my bag, and start drinking the Starbucks coffee I’d bought on the way. Usually I’d ask him an open-ended question like “How are you doing?” and then take the time to listen to his response.
It’s fine if you both sit in silence for a while. Nothing bad will happen. Chances are your parent enjoys just having you there, even if he doesn’t seem to notice or drops off to sleep. (Yes, this used to drive me wild!) Bring a book to read or a pad of paper to make lists.
Though it made me crazy when my father watched TV (turned up loud because he was nearly deaf and frequently “forgot” to wear his hearing aids) near the end of his life, barely seeming to notice that I was there, still I knew that he appreciated my coming to see him. I won’t say that I enjoyed watching curling or golf – it was like watching paint dry, as my father used to say about getting his blood transfusions! Still, now, when I’m at a bar and golf or curling comes on the TV, I find myself watching, as if somehow honoring my Dad.
Stop Multi-Tasking
Increasingly, neurological research demonstrates that the much-vaunted practice of multi-tasking is, in fact, a bust. Our brains, it seems, are not equipped to do more than one thing at a time, especially if focus is required. The good news is that being with aging parents demands that we slow down and stop multi-tasking in order to be with our parents where they are.
“I don’t do that with my parents,” you may be protesting. “When I come for a visit, I’m really present.”
Are you? Maybe, but I’m willing to bet that you check your email stealthily on your smartphone (or not so stealthily) while your father is reporting his latest symptoms or your mother is telling you about a fall she had while standing on the counter to reach the top shelf in the kitchen. We have all done this, and missed the importance of the story and the essential details.
No Drive-By Visits
After my partner’s parents moved to Vermont to be closer to her, she developed the habit of adding two or three drive-by visits to their condo into her weekly routine. She would listen to their stories (briefly) and pick up the list of chores they needed her to perform.
While she assured me that they enjoyed these visits, I wasn’t so sure. I knew that I didn’t like it when she made what amounted to drive-by phone calls to me. (You know what I mean – the sort of activities you engage in so you can check things off on your to-do list!)
I knew that my father always took some time to get comfortable with my presence before he would tell the stories he had saved up for me. Because his life moved at a pace much slower than mine, he found the process of my coming and going required an adjustment that was hardly worth the effort if I just raced in and out.
Find Ways to Engage
When my father was dying, my eldest sister used to ask me, “What do you do all day when you visit Dad?” She found herself bored and uncomfortable after just a few minutes, wanting to get up and do something, or even head back on the road.
I will admit I often felt that way with my mother, who was not able to carry on much of a conversation because of her aphasia. Even then I knew instinctively that, if I didn’t slow down, I would only frustrate her as I’d begin completing her sentences before she had a chance to say them.
Whether it’s because of poor hearing, weak eyesight, cognitive damage, or other health issue, elderly parents move more slowly. If you are to have enjoyable and meaningful visits with your parents, you need to dial it back to their speed.
Find ways to engage with your parents. Perhaps you could watch a television show or a DVD together. If you can bring yourself to pay attention, you might even enjoy yourself!
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