Prepare now for critical decision making

Published 12:38 am Thursday, October 13, 2011

What is the worst thing you can imagine might be said on the other end of the telephone? For some of us, it would be trouble with a teenager and a car, but for many of us it might be one of the following:

• “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but your mother had a serious stroke last night and although she is doing well, I think we need to talk about what is next.”

• “Sally, I can’t handle it anymore. I’m having such back trouble now taking care of your dad, and he doesn’t recognize me some days!”

It is the crises of health or home management for our elders that bring us midlife families to our knees. Now, what do we do?

Unfortunately, we often go immediately from the crisis frying pan into the family feud fire and engage in battles about who should help, whom is right and who “never cared anyway.” Indeed, this is a time to talk calmly to all members of the family and consider all possible solutions. If family problem solving has never been your strength, it sure is hard to start now. Sometimes an outsider such as a social worker, a family counselor or a pastor can help keep a family that’s under strain working together instead of at cross purposes.

Gene, a former client, has never stopped thanking me for being there when his family didn’t know where to turn. Professionals recognize feelings and help members of the family accept that differing opinions deserve attention, not judgment. Now, hard information matters.  Talking can prepare families to share responsibilities in more effective ways. We need to figure out what is affordable and manageable in this situation, not forever.

Conflict may be inevitable to get alternatives explored. When some relatives need to withdraw, a clear effort to keep them informed will help others move ahead and make the necessary decisions instead of being held hostage to dissent or silence. The topic of money is especially likely to generate additional strain. For this reason alone, it is worth repeating this often-sung strain: plan ahead.

Before a caregiving crisis, take time to have a family business meeting and locate financial information (at least the basics of where records are kept and whether any savings exist). Identify health-care preferences, power-of-attorney support and legal documents such as wills.

Being prepared with information, turning to other family members and involving professionals at the time of caregiving crises is far easier when you have talked beforehand.

I am going to seek that information at the Alzheimer’s Walk and Education Fair this Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, at the Redmen’s Lodge on East Third Street in Washington. Will you be there?

Peggy Cohn is a retired geriatric-care manager with a background in public-health nursing and degrees in family studies and aging. The stories are drawn from local caregivers of folks with Alzheimer’s disease. All caregivers and their families are anonymous to protect their privacy and dignity.