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If you didn’t know before, when someone needs help, you certainly find out who your friends are. And this extends to family. All too often, the main carer of a frail older person is another frail older person. Together, they may have struggled for years, propping each other up and offering each other support.


   Although it may have been obvious for some time that they need help, problems may only start to surface ‘officially’ when this arrangement is crumbling and a tipping point has been reached when they simply cannot cope anymore. It may be that one is overwhelmed by the needs of the other. It could be that one is too unwell to continue at home or there is a medical emergency.


   Supporting Mum and Dad is usually left to one member of a family. More often than not, a daughter is left trying to help the parents, while their siblings are ‘living their own lives’.  You cannot leave your 87-year old mother to care for your 90-year old father alone – can you? And so the classic ‘sandwich’ is born. 


   This situation can cause anxiety and rows, massive rows – with siblings, parents, children and partners. Concern over parents can tear families apart because it is very stressful. There is a lot to be done, much support to be given, endless information to be found out and many decisions to be made, often very quickly. It is difficult for older people to be embroiled in the struggles of old age and it is made much more difficult by family members refusing to help or take a share or even be realistic.


   Some children’s contribution can be restricted to: ‘He’s going into a home over my dead body.’

If only that would help, it might make it possible for their father to remain at home. Meanwhile, others think that the occasional telephone call is sufficient. What they don’t seem to realise is that times have changed. Mum and Dad need help – whether they like it or not.





It is hard work being old and it is hard too being the child supporting older parents. They may rely on you for help with everything: handiwork, paperwork, support, advice, guidance and company. You may feel weighed down by myriad problems, as you try to lift the burden on them, knowing that they cannot cope without your help, knowing that, without you, they would be adrift in a sea of troubles.


You want to help, but it can seem as though your life is not your own, as you try to juggle family, parents and work. At least with children, there are others at the school gate to talk to, but with parent problems, you are often alone and in the dark, as ignorant as your parents as to what to do for the best or where to get help. With children, of course, there is also the advantage that they grow up. Older parents, just get older.  It is not just upsetting to see your parents as vulnerable, ailing people. There is the guilt. Whatever you do, however much you try to help, you can feel as though you are failing to be a ‘good child’. Whatever guilt you may have felt before, is nothing to this.   


   It can be particularly the case when your mother tells you, that the woman she had to be begged to employ to help with household tasks ‘was like having a daughter’. You have to laugh, although it can be hard to see the funny side.  OLM's editor was in her 30s and had three children at primary school when her parents started to need support. They were years older than most of her friends’ Mums and Dads. She said: 'My father had won the Burma Star, while friends’ fathers had been evacuees. My Mum had jitter bugged with Americans and had a perm and pearls in the 1960s, while other Mums looked trendy with blonde bobs and mini-skirts.'


   Fast forward 30 years and she felt as though she was helping, but never as much as she could or should.

'Whatever you do, it may never seem to be enough. Your parents’ problems can be so overwhelming that they leave no time for you or your family – and still, every time the phone rings, you can feel as though you are failing.'


   You can end up resenting the parents you want to help – particularly if they seem ungrateful. And you can be even more resentful of others in the family, who seem to leave everything to you. One friend told how she was left looking after her parents-in-law, who lived 30 miles away, because her husband’s sisters were always too busy. If the parents wanted anything, she would get a call. And every Christmas, she would drive to their house and cook them lunch while her children played around their grandparents’ sick beds. Meanwhile her sisters-in-law, who lived doors away, enjoyed untroubled festivities with their families and reacted angrily when she suggested that it might be someone else’s turn one year.  


   Most  parents, of course, don’t want to cause stress and many suffer in silence rather than ask for help – which actually can cause problems in the longer run. One lady in her 90s told me that she had had a wonderful life and did not want to stand in the way of her family enjoying theirs. But her children were unaware how infirm she was and were unprepared when she suffered a complete collapse.


   Sometimes, older parents can be hard work because they are scared about their health or unhappy with their life or just frightened that you may not be at the end of the phone. So they call you repeatedly, which makes your life difficult, just to make sure you are still there for them. 


   Other parents are sadly grateful for any help they receive. But there is a third ‘type’ and there is no easy way of saying this: some older people will take advantage of their children – applying unsubtle emotional pressure to win attention. Blackmail is an ugly word, but sometimes the most appropriate one.


   There are a lot of small issues, which together become big nasty problems and can be quite overwhelming. If you can sort those out, then you are left with the genuinely hard issues, which may need a bit more consideration. Making a plan is so important for reducing stress. That way, everyone knows what is expected of them and all the practical issues are taken care of.





Your parents are getting older. They appear to need help. What should you not do next?


  • Ignore them, perhaps they will ask your sister

  • Pretend you’re too busy and block their number

  • Call them when you’ve got nothing else to do

  • Take over and tell them what to do

  • Tell them what to do and don’t take over

  • Argue with your siblings about who is doing more


What should you do?

  • Make a Plan: sit down with your parents and siblings and work out what, if anything, they need

  • Ask your parents what they want

  • Work out what each member of the family can and should do

  • Organise regular visits, from everyone, so parents are not left wondering if anyone is coming

  • Divide ‘responsibilities’ with siblings

  • Think about multi-generational living options




You are getting older, you may not be coping very well, you may need help and you may have children or younger relatives who may be able to help you. What should you not do?


  • Inform them that you will be coming for an extended stay starting on Saturday

  • Make constant and unreasonable demands

  • Indulge in emotional blackmail

  • Phone up because a lightbulb has gone in the spare room

  • Complain that, in your day, children cared about their parents

  • Compare your children unfavourably with each other and with other people’s children

  • Call for help when you do not need it

  • Refuse to accept help/advice when it is offered

  • Insist on doing everything your way – even though it is really inconvenient for everyone else and perhaps difficult even for you


What should you do?


  • Work on a plan with your family

  • Ask them what would work well for them

  • Genuinely consider all options

  • Tell your family you need help and what help you need

  • Enjoy seeing them

  • Get out and about as much as possible

  • Be appreciative

  • Don’t be afraid to spend money – you can’t take it with you

Happy Families?

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