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Janice Van Dyck

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Letting Mom and Dad Live on Their Own Terms

Posted: 01/14/11 08:55 AM ET

Millions of us went home for the holidays. Well, not "home" exactly. In reality, millions of us left home, and went back for the holidays. Back to who we used to be, back to where we came from, and in some cases, back in time. Like salmon up the river, we inexplicably navigated back to the people of our birth. Our parents.

Have you ever made the trip thinking, what if this is the last time? Parents age, especially when we're not looking, and most especially when we live far away from them. Periodic visits sharpen our senses. All of a sudden, we may be witnessing our parents in steep decline, heading toward the exit ramp, and it raises all kinds of questions.

When will it be time for assisted living? Should Mom still be driving? Are they taking their pills? Is Dad's memory actually shot?

These realizations can be tough, especially if your parents have been role models of determination and resourcefulness. Dealing with normal age-related decline can cause dissention amongst siblings, too, because each has a different relationship with Mom and Dad. For example, in my family, my sister lives closest to our father, and has regular visits with him. My brother and I live in different corners of the country and our main contact with Dad is by e-mail and telephone. Who is in the best position to judge how he's doing? As he approaches the 80-year mark, who has got the best perspective on his health?

This same conversation came up a few days ago in my book club, and again with friends at dinner last night. It seems that everyone of a certain age with living parents has the same questions. There are no easy answers. But I offer these three issues at the root of the debate:

Whose life is it anyway? We live our lives free to make our own mistakes, to put ourselves at risk and determine our own destinies. Why should this change just because we're old?

In our culture, roles often reverse: At some point adult children seem to think they need to parent their parents. This is fine if a parent asks for help, but often elderly parents are resentful because their middle-aged kids keep bossing them around. Their final years are full of conflict and humiliation because of well-meaning -- but strong-willed -- children, intent on removing the "risks" of living. So what if Dad's floors are dirty or your parents don't take their medicine and are going to get sick? If it's their choice, then perhaps you need to reconcile yourself to the fact they're not living their lives your way. And that's ok. After all, since anywhere from your teen years forward, they had to adjust that you weren't living your life their way.

Are your parents capable of clear thinking and reasonable risk assessment? Again, remember that at one time (or perhaps several times), they doubted your ability to make decisions. The point here is whether or not there's an actual, treatable medical/psychological impairment that would prevent your parent from rational thinking and action. And unless you're a doctor, you really can't make this determination on your own.

Consider getting an expert opinion before you take your parents' checkbook away. When they want to blow money at the casino or turn the heat down too low or mow the lawn themselves, just remember that even though it isn't what you want for them, that doesn't mean they shouldn't be allowed to do it. That being said, a parent who is unable to fend for him or herself because of a disability obviously needs help. But when it comes to your parent's livelihood, be careful to distinguish between fact and opinion.

Are your parents putting other people at risk? This again, is a matter of degree. Take driving, for example: We all put others at risk each time we get behind the wheel of a car. Senior citizens represent about 15 percent of all drivers, and they tend to get in more accidents due to age-related skill decline. But driving is risky anyway, and younger people can be even worse drivers than someone's 82-year old father driving 40 mph on the freeway.

So when calculating the risk factor, be realistic. If you worry about your parent causing a fire, it is obviously more dangerous if they live in multi-unit complex than a single home.

If you're struggling with how much autonomy and freedom your parents should have as they age, remember that someday, someone will be making the same decisions for you. Show your kids how you want to be handled in your old age by setting an example with your own parents. I don't know about you, but as long as I'm not hurting other people or actually incapable of making my own decisions, I want to be able to live with the consequences of my own actions, regardless of how old I am.

And you know what? Maybe that's a concept we're losing in our society, the idea of consequences. We can't protect our kids from getting hurt in life by putting a bicycle helmet on them in the stroller (which I actually saw the other day). Nor can we protect our parents from dying by taking away their dignity, freedom and choice. When we're born, the only guarantee is that someday we're going to die. That's the risk of living.

Since losing our parents is inevitable, why not let them do it on their own terms? I know of a man, now 94, who bought into a senior living community in his 80's. He hated it and moved out despite the protests of his family. I applaud his courage! What's the worst thing that could happen? He might die alone, on his own terms, looking around at his own belongings, satisfied that his life was well lived.

His only regret might be that his children didn't understand.