The Parent Trap

The mishaps and misadventures of an entrepreneur's aged mom and dad are making her life a misery of anxiety, guilt, and frustration. Here are a few tips to help all three of them cope

By Jill Hamburg Coplan

Q: My husband and I run a real estate company. My parents, who are in their 90s, are no longer able to take care of themselves, in my opinion. But they refuse help except during emergencies (car accident, illness), when I fly to Florida to see them through. I can't go on this way. I want to see them safe and secure, and be able to schedule regular visits instead of living crisis-to-crisis. But they refuse to move to a senior residence or to accept an aide at home.

---- M.S. New York City

A: You're not alone. The AARP says one-third of the nation's elderly live more than 60 miles from their children. Some 7 million Americans care for someone far away -- 304 miles away, on average, according to the National Council on the Aging (NCOA). People like you are missing a total of 15 million workdays each year.

No surprise, then, that geriatric referral services are the newest item in corporate work/life programs -- and small businesses may soon be able to enjoy this, too. The lucky employees of huge companies offering this perk get guidance, resources, and consultations with providers like Work|Life Benefits, in Cypress, Calif. In the past, the company has worked only with businesses employing 2,000 workers or more (at a cost of $7 to $17 per employee per year). But starting sometime in 2001, it will offer the program to companies with as few as 20 employees (for about $20 per employee per year), says Marketing Director Bill Gurzi.

In the meantime, prepare for a series of stressful conversations with your parents. These suggestions may help all three of you:

Take small steps. The transition you see looming is huge. Instead of expecting it to happen all at once, consider small, temporary suggestions that can stave off disaster and ease the changes. If your parents' driving makes you nervous but you know the importance of their independence, enroll them in an AARP driving course, available in many areas. Get them information on public transportation, senior-center shuttles, and taxi services.

Negotiate. It's often the case that family members make bad listeners -- and worse communicators. Try using a basic negotiating tactic familiar to lawyers and salesmen: have a nice-to-get position, and a need-to-get position -- and don't confuse the two. Psychologist Mark Edinberg of Fairfield, Conn., the author of Talking with Your Aging Parents, puts it this way: Do you need to get them into a nursing home, or do you just need to have an evaluation by a competent agency or physician?

Neutralize. Edinberg suggests asking a neutral friend, a person both parties trust, to be there for one or more of the difficult and emotional discussions that await you all. Another possible option: See if they'll let a social worker make an impartial assessment and recommend possible solutions.

Revisit. Bet on having more than one conversation, so keep expectations low and consider your early tries just door-openers. If you're asking them to change their entire lives, they'll need time for reflection (who wouldn't!). They'll probably change their minds several times, Edinberg warns.

Get informed. They may not realize the scope of reasonably priced county, city, and nonprofit services available to older adults. Many such services fall far short of arranging a permanent aide, who they may perceive as taking over the household or compromising their privacy and independence.

Pamper yourself. You need to care for yourself to control stress and anxiety when your parents are in (or in-between) crises. It's a good time to get into a sensible exercise program, says Rich O'Boyle, founder of ElderCare Online ( and a geriatric-care expert. Consider turning to a professional, a friend, or a religious adviser if things get really rough. And ask family members -- your own children, perhaps -- to help you cope with the tasks.

No guilt. You can't be perfect, or do it all. "You have limitations," warns social worker Jan Allen, supervisor of aging programs with the Catholic Charities of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. "The old Biblical ideal of honoring your father and mother does not necessarily mean doing every single thing they want the way they want it."

Finally, if you end up convinced that your parents pose a grave danger to themselves or others, you can take action with the help of an independent agency like the Jewish Board of Family Services (with offices in many South Florida counties). They can steer you through the laws regarding power of attorney and conservatorship, which would grant you the right to act on their behalf. These laws vary from state to state.

Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.