When visiting your aging parent, taking a different approach can make things better—and more fun—for both of you. If you know someone who just shows up to visit their parents and just sits there and watches the clock, this article is for them.
Katherine Arnup, a retired professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and a life coach, got an education in caregiving when her sister and parents got sick. She drew on those experiences for her latest book, I Don’t Have Time for This!: A Compassionate Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents and Yourself.
Arnup writes about the importance of being “being present” when you visit an aging parent. The following is excerpted from one of her book’s chapters:
Settle In & Look Around
When you arrive to visit your parents, take the time to get settled in. It might help to take a few deep intentional breaths before you open the door to their house or apartment if you’re uncomfortable about being there.
Once inside, resist the urge to start blathering on and on just to fill the void or to cover up your discomfort or nervousness. Listen. Observe. How does the house or apartment look? What changes do you notice since your last visit? Is your parent wearing clothes with obvious stains? Is there a week’s worth of papers stacked up beside their chair? What could these signs mean? Is it typical for them and could it be a hazard to them?
Remember That It’s Not Your House
Because of our discomfort, we often fall into the habit of cleaning up, putting things “back in their place” or throwing things out that we consider to be garbage or recycling. These actions are likely to cause unnecessary frustration and confusion for your parents. They know where everything is now, and you’re only disrupting that order.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s their house, not yours. I’m not suggesting you ignore signs of distress or mental confusion, but you need to respect the fact that you’re still a visitor in someone else’s home. You wouldn’t like it if someone came into your home and started moving things, so don’t do it when visiting your parent.
It’s Okay If There’s Silence
When I was visiting my father, I used to sit down on the loveseat next to his chair, set down my bag, and start drinking the Starbucks coffee I’d bought on the way. Usually I’d ask him an open-ended question like “How are you doing?” and then take the time to listen to his response.
It’s fine if you both sit in silence for a while. Nothing bad will happen. Chances are your parent enjoys just having you there, even if he doesn’t seem to notice or drops off to sleep. Yes, this used to drive me wild! Bring a book to read or a pad of paper to make lists. You don’t have to always be talking to enjoy one another’s presence.
Though it made me crazy when my father watched TV, turned up loud because he was nearly deaf and frequently “forgot” to wear his hearing aids, he seemed to barely to notice that I was there. Nevertheless, I knew that he appreciated my visits—even if we didn’t always talk.
I won’t say that I enjoyed watching curling or golf but now, when I’m at a bar and golf or curling comes on the TV, I find myself watching, as if somehow honoring my Dad. I’ll always remember watching it with him.
Stop Multi-Tasking & Pay Attention
Increasingly, neurological research demonstrates that the much-vaunted practice of multi-tasking is, in fact, a bust. Our brains, it seems, are not equipped to do more than one thing at a time, especially if focus is required. The good news is that being with aging parents demands that we slow down and stop multi-tasking in order to be with our parents where they are.
“I don’t do that with my parents,” you may be protesting. “When I come for a visit, I’m really present.”
Are you? Maybe, but I’m willing to bet that you check your email stealthily on your smartphone while your father is reporting his latest symptoms or your mother is telling you about a fall she had earlier in the week. We’ve all been rude like this and missed the importance of the story and the essential details as a result.
Resist Drive-By Visits
After my partner’s parents moved to Vermont to be closer to her, she developed the habit of adding two or three drive-by visits to their condo into her weekly routine. She would briefly listen to their stories and pick up the list of chores they needed her to perform.
While she assured me that they enjoyed these visits, I wasn’t so sure. I knew that I didn’t like it when she made phone calls to me that felt like the sort that was made just so she could check things off her to-do list.
I knew that my father always took some time to get comfortable with my presence before he would tell the stories he had saved up for me. Because his life moved at a pace much slower than mine, he found that he had to take time to adjust to my coming and going and that it was hardly worth the effort if I just raced in and out at random times.
Find Ways to Engage Your Parents
When my father was dying, my eldest sister used to ask me, “What do you do all day when you visit Dad?” She found herself bored and uncomfortable after just a few minutes, wanting to get up and do something or even head back home.
I admit that I often felt that way with my mother, who was not able to carry on much of a conversation because of her aphasia. Even then, I knew instinctively that if I didn’t slow down I would only frustrate her as I’d begin completing her sentences before she had a chance to say them.
Whether it’s because of poor hearing, weak eyesight, cognitive damage, or other health issue, elderly parents move more slowly. If you are to have enjoyable and meaningful visits with your parents, you need to dial it back to their speed.
Find ways to engage with your parents. Perhaps you could watch their favorite television show DVD together. If you can bring yourself to pay attention, you might even enjoy yourself!