[Paleopsych] NYT: Help for Aging Parents, and for Yourself

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Wed Sep 21 22:25:43 UTC 2005

Help for Aging Parents, and for Yourself


    ELINOR GINZLER knows that her parents were lucky - and that she was,
    too. Her mom died in her sleep at the age of 73 - "20 years too early,
    but she died the way she wanted to," Ms. Ginzler recalled. Her dad
    died at 83 - and, even though he had battled cancer for five years, he
    did not suffer much. "The last time it recurred, they gave him three
    to six months," Ms. Ginzler said. "He died three weeks later, and he
    died in his own home."

    Ms. Ginzler knows that such peaceful, mercifully quick endings are
    rare. Far more often, children see their parents' dignity, hope and,
    in too many cases, their assets, stripped away with their strength.
    And the children suffer, too, barraged with feelings of
    responsibility, guilt, inadequacy and, yes, resentment, as the plight
    of their parents comes to dominate their lives.

    It doesn't have to be that way, Ms. Ginzler says. "You really can help
    aging parents live their lives to the fullest without fully
    sacrificing yourself," she said.

    Her personal luck aside, she knows what she is talking about. At 52,
    she finds that a growing number of her contemporaries are trying
    desperately to fit the emotional, physical and financial demands of
    aging parents into their already oversubscribed lives. Ms. Ginzler's
    work affords no respite from the issue. Since 1998 she has worked for
    AARP, a group whose raison d'être is to help people age without angst.

    She keeps seeing adult children make the same mistakes - like
    insensitivity to a parent's embarrassment. Ms. Ginzler recalls one
    friend who insisted on bathing her ailing father: "She thought it was
    a sign of love, but to him, being bathed by any woman, let alone his
    daughter, was a humiliation."

    Another mistake is not recognizing that parents are stinting on
    themselves to leave ample estates. "You have to say, 'I wouldn't enjoy
    your money if I thought you hadn't gotten the painkillers and care you
    needed,' " she said. Still another error is talking in front of a
    comatose parent as though he or she were not there. "You don't know
    that they can't hear and understand, so assume that they can," she

    Perhaps worst of all, Ms. Ginzler said, too many baby boomers
    mistakenly believe they must choose among their own needs, their newer
    family's needs and those of their parents. To persuade them
    differently, Ms. Ginzler and an AARP colleague, Hugh Delehanty, wrote
    "Caring for Your Parents" (AARP Books, 2005), a guide to help boomers
    help parents and themselves. "Your parents raised you, and their
    end-of-life is giveback time," Ms. Ginzler said during a recent lunch
    at Periyali, a Mediterranean restaurant in the Flatiron district of
    Manhattan. "But that doesn't mean you can't compromise. Your mom wants
    you five days, your kid wants you five days, so you keep one for
    yourself and give each of them two."

    Ms. Ginzler learned about such time juggling early on. She and her
    older brother, Edward, grew up in Morris Plains, N.J., raised by a
    stay-at-home mom and a self-employed accountant father. Every Sunday,
    as far back as she can remember, the Ginzlers drove to New York,
    alternating between visiting her mom's parents in Brooklyn and her
    dad's mom in the Bronx.

    She recalls her maternal grandfather, who lived with the Ginzlers for
    a while, as a "health food freak" who lived to be 98. In his last
    decade or so, whenever he caught a bad cold or felt a new ache, he
    would wonder aloud if the end was near. "It freaked me out, but he
    said, 'Hey, I lived a rich life; I'm O.K. with this,' " she said. "He
    made me understand aging."

    Still, she never thought that it would become a vocation. She
    remembers being a 60's-era hippie who wanted to make the world a
    better place, "but I always liked kids, and figured that's where I'd
    make the difference," she said. After getting a degree in French
    literature at the University of Pennsylvania, she earned a master's in
    counseling at the University of Maryland. Upon graduation in 1975, she
    began working in group homes for delinquent boys. Along the way, she
    met Walter Gross, then a meteorologist, now a computer specialist.
    They married in 1978, and have two sons, both in their 20's.

    After Ms. Ginzler's first son, Ben, was born, she went to work part
    time, with an agency that placed older people as volunteers in local
    programs. In 1987, when her younger son, Daniel, was 3, she quit to
    become a full-time volunteer at Daniel's nursery school. A year later,
    she was back in the salaried world, as a care management supervisor
    for a government agency on aging. In 1998, she answered an ad for a
    project specialist at AARP.

    Her current post is director for livable communities, a new AARP group
    aimed at helping older people do their aging where they wish - be it
    at home, with their children, in assisted living or even in a nursing
    home. No matter the place, Ms. Ginzler said, there are many ways to
    make children feel less burdened, and parents feel less burdensome.
    Here are some of her suggestions:

    Be creative if your spouse or child feels neglected when you spend
    time with Mom or Dad. For a spouse, reinstate romantic courtship.
    "Regress to the Saturday night date, meet at 8, dress up, make it a
    real event," Ms. Ginzler said. For a child, enlist technology to help
    you seem to be two places at once. Does her soccer game coincide with
    a doctor's appointment for your mom? Send a proxy to videotape the
    game, then watch it together later.

    Give "caring coupons" as Christmas and birthday presents. Instead of
    an unneeded coat or coffee pot, give Dad a coupon for a summer's worth
    of lawn mowing, or give mom a chit for a year of drives to the doctor.
    "If it's a gift, they won't feel like you're taking over their life or
    making them feel like invalids," Ms. Ginzler said.

    Do not treat every behavioral aberration as incipient dementia. Ms.
    Ginzler remembers finding her previously dapper dad wearing wrinkled,
    stained clothes. She feared senility; it turned out that he could no
    longer navigate the stairs to the basement washing machine. "He needed
    a cleaning service, not a doctor," she recalled.

    Set contact rules for family members and friends. Answering their
    well-intentioned questions about a parent's health can wipe out your
    spare time. Refuse to take phone calls on Sundays and set up a "phone
    tree" on other days - so that every person you speak with is
    responsible for passing along information to several others. You can
    also send regular e-mail updates.

    Trust but verify. If your parent is in a hospital or nursing home, or
    if you have hired a home care aide, "be a frequent and unpredictable
    visitor," Ms. Ginzler said. If you do not like what you see, talk to
    the attendant, then to the supervisor, then to the hospital or home
    administrator. If that does not work, file a complaint with the state
    department of health, which often runs the agency that licenses
    nursing homes. Or call (800) 677-1116 - the federal hot line for aging
    services - to find out how to contact your local long-term-care
    ombudsman. (Memorize that number: it can direct you to all kinds of
    area services for the aging.)

    Apply the lessons you learn to your own inevitable death. Do not just
    tell others if you do not want to be kept alive artificially; execute
    a living will, and show it to people other than the person you've
    designated as your health care proxy. "A spouse or child could too
    easily say, I know she said 'no heroic measures,' but she's my mom, or
    my wife, I can't pull the plug," Ms. Ginzler said. And recall the
    seemingly trivial things that drove you crazy after your parents died.
    When Ms. Ginzler saw how much time it took to liquidate her parents'
    home, she began throwing out a lot of her own superfluous items. "I
    kept thinking, 'I don't want my kids to go through this,' " she said.

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