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Overly dependent parent presents delicate challenge to family

Carol Bursack of Minding Our Elders

Dear Carol: My parents were married for 56 years before Mom died. Dad eventually moved into assisted living. His mind is good, though he had a stroke years back so he uses a cane. He can still drive. My sister works part time, yet Dad is at her house every day from breakfast until evening. I live 50 miles away, but help out on weekends. I'm afraid that, because of Dad's grief, we've overdone the caregiving. We've talked with Dad, but he doesn't see the problem. How do we convince him that we love seeing him but he needs to take advantage of his new home and give us some space? — Steve

Dear Steve: You and your sister have been kind in your efforts to support your dad through difficult times and that is admirable. I can relate to that, but I can also relate to the fact that your intent was to help him make a transition to a different kind of life, not have him take over yours.

Even couples, at least most of them, need some separate interests in order to appreciate the time that they do spend together. Certainly, adult children and their aging, but still capable, parents should strive for this.

There have been studies showing that the socialization available in communal living can extend life by decreasing the loneliness that isolated seniors can face. Your dad has already made the physical move to communal living but he obviously hasn't made the emotional transition.

It might help if your sister and you tell the social worker at the facility that you are trying to make some changes. You two can brainstorm with the social worker about how to make this a gradual transition, allowing your dad adjustment time.

The way to begin might be for your sister to tell your dad that on, for example, Wednesday, she won't be home. Tell the social worker that this is the day for the first experiment. He or she could then encourage your dad to go to the dining room for meals. Then, as you increase the number of days that your sister will be unavailable, the social worker should manage to gradually introduce your dad to some activities so that your dad can make friends. Naturally, you or your sister will be available for emergencies.

I remember that my rather difficult uncle received a table assignment with a handpicked (by the social worker) group of men in his nursing home who eventually, against his strong resistance, became his friends. Sometimes it takes a little push to get things started.

Like my uncle, your dad will probably resist at first, but if he sees there's no other choice on a particular day, he'll likely go along with this change. Then, gradually, your sister and the social worker can expand the plan so that your dad's visits to your sister's home occur at a frequency that can make them fun for you all rather than a burden.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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