January 22, 2016
What Shall We Do About Mother?
By Marcia Washburn
The following article is excerpted and adapted from Home-Based Eldercare: Stories and Strategies for Caregivers. In this book recently released, Marcia Washburn shares her experiences caring for four adult relatives in her home. We believe our readers will find these insights helpful as they consider how to honor their aging parents.
“Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” 
It is hard to envision that the mother who raised you and your siblings, and who still efficiently runs a household and organizes church dinners for three hundred, will ever need your assistance. It is hard to imagine that the father who tossed you high in the air to your delighted squeals and who worked long hours to support his family will ever be frail. But few of us escape the ravages of time. Even our parents, those stalwarts of strength, may someday need our help.
Perhaps you are already in that season now. You’ve noticed that Mom and Dad are slowing down. Maybe handling the yard work is getting to be too much for them. Perhaps they are becoming more forgetful or are experiencing serious medical issues. Possibly their income is not keeping up with their expenses.
Most adult children know that their parents will eventually need help of some sort. But it is easy to postpone thinking about it while all seems well. Don’t wait for an emergency hospitalization to begin the discussion. Being proactive about the future brings peace of mind in the present, both to the parents and to the adult children who love them. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Keep in Touch
Watch for signs that your parents can no longer handle their financial, physical, or maintenance issues alone. Be aware of unusual, out-of-character behaviors. This is especially important if your parent lives alone. As my mother’s health declined, our weekly phone calls became daily phone calls. Basic household decisions became too much for her. Eventually she moved in with us, spending her final months in our care.
Put yourself in your parents’ shoes and carefully navigate around their home. Are there throw rugs that could cause a fall? Is there enough lighting for failing eyes to see clearly? When was the furnace or fireplace last checked? Does that wobbly stair or porch railing need to be replaced?
Your parents may no longer be able to handle routine maintenance like snow shoveling, raking, or fixing leaky faucets. Do you need to schedule regular family work-days or hire a handyman? Would it conserve Mom’s limited energy if you stocked her freezer with homemade meals?
If your parents live at a distance, get acquainted with their neighbors and exchange phone numbers. If a parent doesn’t answer your calls, you want to know someone who will check in on them. A neighbor first alerted us to behavioral changes in my mother-in-law, early signs of Alzheimer’s that led to more frequent in-person visits and, ultimately, to moving her in with us.
Do These Things Sooner, Rather Than Later
As your parents age, you may find yourself in need of specific information in order to help them. Most of us leave a signed consent-for-treatment form with our children’s babysitters in case of an emergency. But what if your aging parent has a medical emergency? She may be unable to give the medical staff the information necessary for her care. She may not even be able to give consent for her care.
It is wise to have copies of documents that may be necessary in case your parent is unexpectedly hospitalized. Keep them in an easy-to-access folder to grab on short notice. Important information includes:
- Insurance and/or Medicare card(s)—copy both front and back sides to get the pre-certification phone numbers
- Social Security number (even if not retired)
- Driver’s license or state ID card—most emergency rooms now require photo identification
- List of current medications and supplements. Sometimes these will impact the results of a lab test or cause an unfavorable drug interaction. Be sure to include over-the-counter medications your parent frequently takes.
- List of any known allergies: drugs, food, environmental (such as Latex that is found in the gloves the emergency room staff uses)
- Medical history—serious illnesses and surgeries. Add this information to your family medical history, too; some illnesses run in families.
- Medical Power of Attorney document (identifies who may make medical decisions on behalf of the patient)
- Durable Power of Attorney document (identifies who may make financial decisions on behalf of the patient)
Some families find it awkward to discuss legal matters and final wishes. Perhaps you and your spouse can take the lead by letting your siblings and parents know that you are assembling important information into a Family Notebook and encouraging them to do so, too. Explain to your parents how grateful you will be to have all of the information you need in one place if they become incapacitated. They need not show you the details at this time if they wish to preserve their privacy, but you will be glad to have this information if one of them is suddenly crippled by a stroke or heart attack and you become the decision-maker on their behalf. 
When my mother was in her fifties, she assembled a three-ring binder of legal, financial, and personal information that we would need at the time of her death or disability. It became known as the Family Notebook. My sister and I had the security of knowing that Mother was providing guidance for us far in advance. We were also thankful that she was faithful to update the notebook over the next thirty years before we needed that information. It was the ultimate in good manners for her to provide this written guidebook for us.
Mother regularly reminded us where to find the Family Notebook, which simply had our names on the spine—it appeared to be just another photo album on the shelf. It included a copy of her will, Medical and Durable Powers of Attorney, names of her lawyer and financial advisors, bank and insurance account numbers, and more. She had a section that outlined her preferences in music and Scripture verses for her funeral. She also included a list of friends, relatives, and neighbors to be notified, along with their phone numbers. We referred to this information often after she moved in with us and again after she died. 
It is amazing how many people allow the state to determine the future of their children’s care and how their assets will be distributed. If you do not have a will when you die, you are doing just this. Do not put this off. Only God knows what our expiration date will be, and He isn’t telling us. We are not guaranteed “three score and ten” on this planet.
I personally had a wake-up call at age fifty-two when I came close to dying from a sudden E. coli infection. As I recovered, I realized how difficult it would have been for my husband to take over the bill-paying and taxes since our paperwork was not organized in a way anyone else could understand.
While having your will prepared, be sure to sign Medical and Durable Power of Attorney documents. These documents allow the person you name to make medical and financial decisions on your behalf should you be incapacitated or after your death.
Be cautious about signing a Living Will, however. There are many variables surrounding medical issues. You may decide that you would rather your loved ones make decisions than to be locked into what you wrote on a paper decades earlier. Some medical interventions can support life while a body heals, such as the ventilator that kept me alive while my body fought off the E. coli infection. But the same intervention may only painfully prolong the dying process in a terminal patient. Family members, in counsel with doctors and their spiritual leaders, need to have the freedom to discern God’s will in a given situation. Medical staff tell us that a written document such as a Living Will can override the judgment of doctors and family members, even when it is not in the patient’s best interest.
“The patient neither speaks nor comprehends the spoken word. Sometimes she babbles incoherently for hours on end. She is disoriented about person, place, and time. She does, however, respond to her own name. I have worked with her for the past six months, but she still shows complete disregard for her physical appearance and makes no effort to assist in her own care. She must be fed, bathed, and clothed by others. Because she has no teeth, her food must be pureed. Her shirt is usually soiled from almost incessant drooling. She does not walk. Her sleep pattern is erratic. Often she wakes in the middle of the night, and her screaming awakes others. Most of the time she is friendly and happy, but several times a day she gets quite agitated without apparent cause. Then she wails until someone comes to comfort her.” 
Most of us cannot imagine caring for someone so demanding. Yet, as parents, we all have done so. The above quotation describes the writer’s six-month-old infant.
Is caring for our parents so different from caring for our children? In both cases, we are honoring those whom God has placed in our care—those who, without our care, would be left in the care of strangers.
Many Christians are choosing to bring their elderly parents into their own homes when they can no longer live alone. They think of it as an extension of the family-centered lifestyle of homeschooling. A new organization, Christian Family Eldercare, seeks to provide resources, articles, conferences, and other support for families who are considering this alternative to institutional care. 
Most of us have forgotten how many things changed in our lives when we brought that first baby home from the hospital. We had to establish new routines, slow the pace of our life, and handle many medical and personal care issues. We had to put someone else before ourselves.
You will make these same adjustments as you get used to having an elder in your home. Although the personal and medical care issues are frequently what concern us most at first, it is often the emotional and spiritual issues that impact us and our elders more.
Pray for Them
As someone has quipped, “Growing old is not for wimps.” None of us truly expects to look or act like the elderly we see around us, but if we live that long, we probably will.
Meanwhile, many of us are part of the generational sandwich, serving both our children and our parents and sometimes feeling like the bologna stuck in the middle. We feel pressure from both directions.
But imagine how your once-vital parents feel as they see their independence stripped away, first losing a job (perhaps through retirement), then a driver’s license, then their friends pass away, their once-healthy body betrays them, and on and on. Pray for God’s grace on them as they make these adjustments.
Also, remember this: your children will learn how to honor you in your old age by watching what you do for your parents or your spouse. You are laying the foundation for your own future as you care for your parents’ present. Pray that He will lead you as you seek to “honor you parents that your days may be long in the earth.”
© 2015 by Marcia K. Washburn, who currently cares for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother-in-law in her home. This article is adapted from her new book, Home-Based Eldercare: Stories and Strategies for Caregivers. A trained musician and former homeschool mother, Marcia writes on parenting, homeschooling, music, and caregiving topics. See marciawashburn.com to view her resources and articles, and to sign up for her free newsletter.
 Exodus 20:12
 See The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff by Julie Hall (Thomas
Nelson: 2008) for excellent advice on starting the conversation with your parents.
 See Home-Based Eldercare: Stories and Strategies for Caregivers by Marcia K. Washburn for detailed information about assembling your own Family Notebook.
 Excerpt from article in The Journal of the American Medical Association by Paul E. Ruskin, M.D. Quoted in Caring for Your Elderly Parents by Patricia H. Rushford, p. 131.