Helping parents maintain independence, but limiting risks

Graham Hookey is an educational and parenting writer

  • Jul. 15, 2011 8:00 a.m.

A new chapter in my life has begun.

As of last week, I have taken up a new position as invisible caregiver in the home of my parents.

I say invisible because neither of them will accept the fact that they need caregiving, and in many ways, they don’t.

Thus, for now, I’m just staying with them while they tell me all the things they need done around the house.

For each elderly person whose relatives believe he or she needs support, there is a unique set of circumstances and thus, as I have often spoken about in my approach to parenting, there is also a need for a unique plan for each one.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the most fundamental question that arises: how can you help your parents maintain as much independence as possible while limiting the risk of danger to them?

As parents, my wife and I tried to develop competence in our children by exposing them to and reinforcing the basic skills we felt they would need to succeed in school and in life in general.

We then gave them as many opportunities in as wide a variety of activities as possible, to develop the confidence that they could take on challenges and be reasonably successful.

And overriding all lessons, we emphasized the importance of character and being good people.

In beginning the process of caring for my aging parents, I have found myself using a similar framework for strategizing on how to be supportive without being invasive.

I want them to do what they can, with the competencies they have had for decades, to look after themselves in their own home.

I am definitely not here to criticize or change their routines or activities.

In so doing, I hope they will maintain a confidence level that ensures they still feel they are in control of their lives.

In my case, I have a relatively uncomplicated situation.

My dad is physically very weak, the result of a form of leukemia that reduces the number and effectiveness of red blood cells.  He has lost about 40 pounds over the past two years and looks more like a skeleton than a man.  He is exhausted all the time. Still, he is as mentally sharp as ever and, for the most part, is able to get around the house and take care of himself.

For him, I am trying to be his arms and legs, getting lists of things he’d be doing around the house if he wasn’t so “useless” (his term), asking him how to do them and where his tools are and thus restoring both his pride in his home appearance and his usefulness as a supervisor of my work.  He has enjoyed the first week of us catching up on some painting and cleaning jobs.

My mom is healthy (“It’s no good for me to even think about being sick with your dad like he is”) and determined to take care of the inside of the house.  She ironed my underwear this week, so I know she’s still taking care of business in the housework realm.

For her, I am an emotional support, taking away some of the worry she has about my dad’s depression issues and walking behind him one step, with my hand on his belt, so that if he goes down, he’s not going to hit the floor hard enough to do serious damage.

She’s been afraid to let him do anything for fear of him hurting himself, but with me around, he can do more of what he wants and she can worry a bit less, but a small bit.

I am in their home, so I am living their routines and they are living their lives much as they have for the 64 years they’ve been married – competently and confidently.

As for character, well, the lessons are coming my way. Their pride in their independence and their concern for others, despite their own personal challenges, remind me each day of their right to dignity and respect in their treatment by others, especially me.

Graham Hookey is an educational and parenting writer. Email him at