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Caregivers can troubleshoot and empathize without 'fixing' everything

"Minding Our Elders" columnist says it's important to remember that we can't "fix" aging for our parents, but we can listen with empathy and validate their feelings.

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Carol Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
Contributed / Carol Bradley Bursack
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Dear Carol: My mom, now 87, voluntarily moved to assisted living three years ago. She said at the time that she loved it. She continues to have chronic pain from rheumatoid arthritis and takes medications for the usual age-related issues. Even though she forgets things more often than she used to, she doesn’t seem to have dementia.

Lately, though, she’s started complaining about being “forced” to move to “this place,” saying that she hates it. Of course, she likes some caregivers better than others, but nothing major seems to have changed regarding her care. I visit several times a week, bring her treats and take her out for fun. What more can I do to make her happy? — PS.

Dear PS: Over time, most older adults will experience life changes that can eat away at their sense of autonomy. For that reason, I remind caregivers that they can’t “fix” aging. Sometimes the best thing they can do is listen with empathy, letting their older adults know that they are heard. Validate their feelings and mean it. Some of these challenges could make anyone cranky.

That said, what concerns me about your mom is this abrupt change in her personality. While I stand by the validation approach in general, I’d also suggest that you consider underlying causes, including staffing changes.

If there’s nothing dramatically different with her care, the next step would be to investigate any medication changes. If there are no medication red flags that could explain this change in your mom, then she could be reacting to pain.


Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver and a nationally-recognized presence in caregiver support. She's the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” a longtime newspaper columnist and host of her blog at mindingoureldersblogs.com. Carol's an introverted book nerd, so you won't see her mugging in viral videos, but you can easily reach her using the contact form at mindingourelders.com.

While smart doctors avoid using pain medications that can slow thinking, cause falls or increase the risk of bleeding after a fall, there’s a downside to such caution. Older adults are sometimes reluctant to report pain so the doctor may feel that it’s managed as well as it can be, yet that may not be the case. With patience, perhaps they can find a more effective medication option that has an acceptable risk/benefit trade-off.

If the doctor(s) who are already treating her can’t find a reason for the change, I’d suggest that you take your mom to see a neurologist or a memory clinician. These specialists are trained to evaluate her to see if her mild memory issues may have been a precursor to dementia. This is a common progression so she may be having increased anxiety over the changes, or she could even be experiencing some delusional thinking. While most types of dementia can’t be cured, some symptoms can be slowed with medications. Others can be better managed once the physician knows what type of pathology may be involved.

You want your mom to return to being content with her life — and better yet, happy. That’s understandable, but it may not be possible. Comfort her. Validate what she feels. Check into what can be changed and follow through. Then accept that you’re doing all that you can. The reality of aging care is that there isn’t a “fix” for every problem.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver and a nationally-recognized presence in caregiver support. She's the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” a longtime newspaper columnist and host of her blog at mindingoureldersblogs.com. Carol's an introverted book nerd, so you won't see her mugging in viral videos, but you can easily reach her using the contact form at mindingourelders.com.
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