Insights & News

November 2015

Enabling Well-Being of Elderly Parents

By: Mark Stinson, Senior Advisor

Early Retiree was in the emergency room at the hospital and chagrined. His 90-year-old father, August, had just made Early the target of a joke. Early, did not want to admit it, but he was amused. The joke was rather good.

August had just been wheeled into a small cubby hole of a room within the emergency room. A nurse approached, “Do you have pain anywhere?” Silently, August raised his right hand and pointed at Early. Watching the finger, the nurse looked puzzled, “You have pain in your finger?” Still pointing at Early, August said, “No, he is my pain.”

August was angry, but not so angry to lose his dry sense of humor. He did not want to go to the hospital. Against his father’s wishes, Early called 911. It was a good call. The doctors and nurses found pneumonia in the early stages. August went home five days later only slightly worse for the wear.

Early has come to peace with his father – a strong-willed child of the depression and World War II. At age 90, August still cleans the gutters. Early has said, “I have come to peace with the fact that my father may someday fall off that ladder.”

A constant battle in the care of an elderly parent is - where to draw the line? Always weighing peace of mind (of the child) versus quality of life (of the parent).

Early likes to recount a story by a friend who had a 100-year-old father. A visiting nurse told the son, “I am very concerned about your father.”

“Why is that?” the son responded with alarm.

“Your father tells me he eats a piece of pie every morning for breakfast. This is not good for him.”

The son smiled, “Well, it got him to age 100. Let him do what he wants.” Caring for an elderly parent is particularly poignant and it is easy to not see the forest for the trees. How do we get to that place where we are at peace? How do we get to that intersection where “things that matter” meet “things we can control?”

In his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atal Gawande writes, “We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.”

Early is at peace (and willing to be a target of his father’s jokes) because he knows what “well-being” means to his father.

Gawande continues “…the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding.”

In another post we will explore how to have the conversation with your parent to get the answers to these questions.

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