How can I help my demanding father -- without neglecting the rest of my life?

Marcyv asked...

How do I respond to my 89 year old father who demands much of my attention, and doesn't understand that I have other responsibilities besides him? He lives in a senior residence five minutes away from us, where he is safe, gets meals, has nursing staff available, and other residents with friendly faces. I am his only living child. Guilt guilt guilt!

Expert Answer

David Solie is an author, educator, speaker, and thought leader in geriatric and intergenerational communication. His book How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap With Our Elders is a landmark text that has been read and reread by legions of baby boomers searching for a better approach to working with their parents and other older adults.

When older adults give up their primary living environment, they feel out of control. Even if the new facilities and support staff are ideal, it may not ease the psychological discomfort that being in a new space can create. For most elderly adults, their primary living environment represents the last area of control they have in a world of mounting losses. It sounds like your father is trying to assert some control as he comes to terms with his new living environment and you have become his primary focus.

While this is a natural response, it can be very taxing on the primary care coordinator of the family. Unless you find a way to rebalance his expectations, you will exhaust yourself trying to ameliorate his discomfort. For his transition to be successful, you both need breathing room.

One way to deal with this situation is to offer your father what I call "preferred choices." Preferred choices let aging parents know they matter, while also making it clear that you cannot ignore or renege on the other responsibilities in your life. Even though your resources are limited, you will insure that your aging parents hold a priority status in how they are allocated.

The set up for this strategy is straight forward. Despite the day to day demands of trying to get everything done, you are giving your father first choice whenever you can regarding visits, appointments, and outings. If you can only come for a single visit on a given day, what time would he prefer? If you only have time Monday and Thursday this week to take him to his doctor's appointment, which day would he prefer? This sends a clear signal that he is of central importance in your life and is not being left out. At the same time, it makes it clear that there will be times when you cannot drop everything to take care of his needs.

This is not say that your father will be thrilled with the preferred choice system. But it will reset his expectations and give him clear choices as to when he gets your attention. Without these boundaries, he will not be motivated to seek out other sources of support and attention in his new environment.