Sometimes, the fact that your parents need your help is painfully obvious. Your dad has a stroke; Mom falls and breaks her hip. You go to visit and find that the house is a mess and there's no food in the refrigerator.
Often, however, the need for help isn't as apparent. It's important to understand that many older people—perhaps including your parents—are fiercely independent. Most of our parents are of a generation that values self-sufficiency. They may deny that they need help, even when the need is clear to everyone else.
If you don't live near your parents, try to establish a contact in their building or neighborhood who will keep an eye on them. Check in with the contact now and then (or more often if you're worried about your folks) just to make sure everything is okay and your parents aren't having any major problems.
If you don't live close to your parents, you might be unaware that they could use some help. If you live in New York and they've retired to Arizona, for instance, chances are that you don't see them too often. Their situation may change significantly between your visits, and you might not ever know that they need help with household chores, managing finances, or whatever, until the situation has become very serious.
Sometimes, one parent will express concern about the other, alerting family members that there's a problem. Maybe Mom confides that she's terribly worried about Dad because he's increasingly confused and disoriented. Or Dad fears that Mom's diabetes is getting worse, but she refuses to see the doctor about it.
If that happens, be sure to take the concerns seriously, and start thinking about how you might help. Your dad is likely to have remained quiet about his concerns for a long time for fear of being “disloyal” to your mom. By the time he finally talks to you about the problem, chances are it's quite serious. If you have brothers and sisters, remember to tell them about your concerns and get their input on how you might help your parents.
The best situation is if you're able to sit down and talk frankly with your folks about their living situation. If you notice they're having trouble keeping up with writing checks and paying their bills, for instance, it would benefit everyone to discuss the problem and figure out how to solve it.
Unfortunately, real life often isn't like that. Your dad might feel ashamed to tell you that he can't figure out the bills anymore, much less deal with his income taxes. It may be next to impossible for your mother to discuss with you the problems she's having with incontinence, much less ask you to buy her Depends.
It's extremely difficult and painful, both for you and your parents, when the parent-child relationship begins to shift and change. Of course, your parents haven't been taking care of you in your adulthood, but they maintain their parental status. If you need to step in and start taking care of them, the parent-child relationship becomes distorted. Watching that relationship change is hard.
If you have sisters and brothers, be sure to inform them of any problems your parents are having. Nobody likes to feel left out of a family situation, and, they may be valuable resources for help.
If you need to step in to help your parents, be sure you do so in a manner that will protect their dignity. No one likes to be told they're not capable of keeping up with their responsibilities. Think carefully about what you'll say and how you'll act.
As difficult as it may be to alter your relationship with your parent or parents, there are situations in which you'll have no choice. If any of the following circumstances apply to your folks, you're going to need to step in and make some changes:
Their living situation is not safe. Dad has fallen four times—that you know of. Mom has burned the bottom of every pan she has because she can't remember to turn off the stove. Dad walked to the corner store for some groceries and couldn't find his way back home.
One parent is causing too much strain on the other. Mom has started sitting up for most of the night to make sure that Dad doesn't wander out of the house. Or Mom's breathing condition makes it necessary for Dad to wait on her hand and foot, and he's clearly at the end of his rope.
The situation is causing too much stress for you or other family members. You've been stopping by your mother's house four times a day since her last fall, helping her with small chores and cooking her dinner every night. On weekends, you clean her house and keep her company. You're absolutely exhausted with trying to keep up with all those responsibilities in addition to work and your own home and family. Your husband and kids are complaining that they never see you, and you've completely lost touch with all your friends.
Circumstances are clearly out of control. You visit for the first time in four months and are shocked to see that the house is filthy and smells terrible. Or you try to call your folks and find out their phone service has been shut down because they didn't pay the bill, and their electricity is due to be discontinued, as well. Or you learn they haven't been to the grocery store for three weeks because it's too difficult for them to get there and get the groceries back home.
If any of these scenarios sound too familiar, it's probably time to get your parents some help. As difficult as it might be, you need to address the problem, and help them to find a solution. It might be as simple as setting aside one night a month to help them write out checks and organize papers. Or it may be as difficult as having to start looking for a nursing home for Mom or Dad.