How do you know that it’s time to have “the talk” with your elderly parents?

Several years ago, my client “Michelle” came to me with some observations about her parents.

“Recently, after feeling anxious about my folks, I found myself dropping in for visits more frequently to check on them. Once, I came into their apartment and smelled smoke and when I inquired, they told me casually that they had left the stovetop on and the pot burned. They tried to brush it off but I became alarmed. Additionally, my dad has become quite introverted and has stopped going to his Senior Group in town. Now he only wears an old, pilled sweater and pants that are two sizes too big on him. Mom seems “less sharp” than she used to be. She constantly repeats the same stories and also tries to cover for some obvious memory lapses. I couldn’t believe that my mother, a fastidious housekeeper, is leaving the house messy and disorganized.  I even went into their refrigerator and found moldy and some unrecognizable food!”

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

Do you find yourself calling your parent(s) multiple times a day because you just don’t feel secure that they are ok?

Are you hearing from your parent’s friends or neighbors that they seem “different” and out of sorts?

Are there piles of papers and unpaid bills lying around your parent’s home?

Perhaps you are caregiving long distance and don’t see your parent regularly but your hear from others that there is a clear deterioration in their functioning?

Have you noticed a shift in your parent’s hygiene, either with cleanliness or lack of concern about their grooming?

Are you noticing that your elderly parent (s) are becoming more forgetful?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, it may be time for you to address your concerns with them.

How do I prepare for this talk?

  1. Speak to a therapist or Care Manager with expertise in working with older adults and their families. They can be a wonderful resource to you in navigating the new world of elder care and providing for your parents’ security and welfare.
  2. Seek out the counsel of an elder care attorney to discuss options for POA (Power of Attorney) and other matters related to helping your elderly parent with their finances.
  3. If you have siblings who are involved, set up a meeting with them to brainstorm about good options for coping with your parents’ decline and how to best approach your parents with your ideas.
  4. Be prepared for some resistance from your parent, after all the role reversal can be very challenging.

Having worked with multiple adult children who are caregivers I have heard many responses to broaching the subject of making some changes in the lives of their elderly parents

“I’ve been independent for 80+ years and I’m not going to stop now!”

“I’m your mother, not the other way around. Stop asking me about my bills. I’ve been paying them for sixty plus years!”

“Honey, I appreciate your concern, but Mom and I are just fine.”

“If you think you are going to put me in some home, you need to think again!”

“How would you know what’s going on with me; I barely see you!”

“I took care of your grandparents until their dying day and that’s what I expect from you!”

“I’m doing fine for my age. I can still do my exercises and I’ve only had a few fender benders!”

“If you force me to get live in help, I might as well give up now…”

Perhaps you have already tried to initiate a conversation but are reluctant to pursue it any further, since you were met initially with resistance?

What are the implications of doing nothing? 

You could be one of the lucky adult children where your parent will continue on for a few years with no mishaps, but it isn’t likely. When we avoid dealing with the issues that make us uncomfortable, it usually doesn’t work out well. Ignoring your parent’s decline in hygiene and grooming could lead to further deterioration of their health.

If your parent is not careful or aware of food safety they could food poisoning which would lead to hospitalization. If your parent is not paying his or her bills, their car could be repossessed or a lien may be placed on their home. A parent who is not careful about stove safety could have a fire in their home which could have devastating consequences. The bottom line is we need to trust our instincts as concerned children.

After sharing the above suggestions with Michelle, and coordinating a meeting with her siblings, we strategized how to best present the family’s concerns to their parents. Michelle’s parents were initially defensive and upset but then after witnessing their children’s genuine concern for them, they agreed to put into place some homecare which would start out four hours a day, and eventually became more intensive as their needs developed. Her parent’s house became more organized and efficient with the help of the caregiver. Their hygiene and grooming improved, and they had assistance going to doctors appointments and other errands. Michelle felt more relaxed, and was able to have more quality time with her parents, with less anxiety related to their activities of daily living.

Recently Michelle shared with me that she was successful in persuading her parents to give up their car after an accident occurred within a few blocks of their home. They are now considering a higher level of care for her mother whose dementia has accelerated.

When in doubt, trust your instincts

If things don’t feel right, they usually aren’t. It is worth the effort and stress to begin to talk to your older parents about securing their wellbeing and keeping them as healthy as possible for as long as possible. It’s worth it. For you and for them.


Jeanne Lankin is a licensed clinical social worker in Israel and New Jersey. She recently made aliyah to Jerusalem where she has a private practice. Jeanne has been a psychotherapist for over 30 years and has cultivated extensive experience working with adults of all ages. She provides individual, couple, family and group psychotherapy assisting her clients through life transitions and challenges, and also works with seniors and their families dealing with illness, loss, bereavement, caregiving and familial conflict. Additionally, Jeanne provides cognitive and behavioral therapy (CBT) for people struggling with anxiety and phobias as well as EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing) therapy for those who have experienced trauma.

Jeanne Lankin, LCSW can be contacted through her website,