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Caring for Your Aging Parents

Mistake #4: Not Knowing What Your Parent Needs or Wants

The conversation is not always easy, but talk to your aging relative about her wishes. "Don't get in the position of making every decision for your parent," advises Rhodes. "Most people still want to live independently." To gain a clearer sense of your loved one's needs:

Get a Geriatric Assessment

A head-to-toe checkup can separate a relatively simple nutritional deficiency from a clear case of dementia. Knowing your loved one's health status will help you better understand his needs.

Meet Your Parent's Doctors

If possible, accompany her on a visit. Also make sure you have access to your loved one's medical records. Have your parent draft a letter or fill out a form that gives you permission to obtain medical information about her.

Respect Your Parent's Wishes

Sometimes in the quest to provide quality care, caregivers try to impose what they think is best, instead of considering what their loved one wants. Elizabeth Matthews, a pediatrician in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and her husband wanted his elderly parents to either move closer or get help with housekeeping or transportation. But Elizabeth's in-laws refused, despite her father-in-law's Alzheimer's and her mother-in-law's chronic leukemia. It wasn't until July 2005, when her mother-in-law died, that her father-in-law finally moved in.

"It was hard to see them struggle when we knew it could be easier," says Elizabeth, 54, a mother of two. "In the end we had to let things go and not be so controlling, which eased our own mental stress. We had to respect their wishes for autonomy and control. Even if they were in poor health, it was still their life."