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Working Mother's Subha Barry: Top tips for taking care of aging parents

"Supporting employees with resources, job flexibility and time off is what workers need to thrive during challenging times for their families," says Barry.
Subha Barry and her mother, Saroja Viswanathan.
Subha Barry and her mother, Saroja Viswanathan.Courtesy of Subha Barry.

As we enter our 50s, our children grow up, and our energies, worries and focus transfer to our aging parents—if we are lucky enough to still have them with us. Now in their 70s and 80s, the vibrant, active, decisive individuals we knew as Mom and Dad have become increasingly ambivalent about making decisions, less physically capable, and more reliant on us. In my birth country, India, children grew up watching parents take care of their parents; in fact, your children are your social security. You can only imagine my amazement after moving here as a young adult and seeing how the U.S. works, with a fiercely independent elderly population living on their own or in communities with other senior citizens.

My own mother, now 80, was widowed at 53 and never remarried; she didn’t even consider it. To her, it was as culturally inconceivable as moving to an assisted-living facility. As she aged, my siblings and I talked to her about where she wanted to live and how she wished to be cared for. My brother and his Russian-American wife live in the San Francisco Bay Area, as do my sister and her Indian American husband. Indian parents traditionally live with their sons; in Mom’s case, she probably would have been more at home at my sister’s, where there is freshly made Indian food every day and a large Indian American community surrounding them, including a great number of seniors who live with their children. But guess where she lives? With my Irish American husband, Jim, and me in New Hope, Pennsylvania, for most of the year. During the winter, she’s a self-sufficient snowbird living in India.

Perhaps it is a level of comfort and familiarity that comes with all the caregiving she did during the years I was battling cancer. She bonded with my husband and children in a way people can only when going through major crises together. Our home is where she feels “at home.” She cooks Indian food, drives her little Volvo, takes walks across the river, and makes friends in the neighborhood. And we are so grateful to have her spirited and spiritual presence in our lives.

Her most recent concern is about what we would do if she were to develop Alzheimer’s disease. She’s had a few friends who have been diagnosed, and she is heartbroken over what their families are experiencing. After a few back-and-forths on the topic, I was able to settle her down with an assurance. “Ma!” I said. “No worries. If you are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I’ll quit my job and stay home with you. Each morning, when you wake up, you can decide who I am: a friend, a sibling, a parent, a daughter or granddaughter. We’ll just have a good time together.” I hope we never come to that, but it seemed like a good way to cope with it.

But I recognize that not every daughter can quit her job simply because a parent needs more of her time. That’s why I’m thankful to the 50 Best Companies for Multicultural Women—these employers understand how important caregiving is, especially in immigrant communities. Supporting employees with resources, job flexibility and time off is what workers need to thrive during challenging times for their families.

Subha Barry, president of Working Mother Media.
Subha Barry, president of Working Mother Media.Miller Hawkins

We are all growing old, and I hope that we each set a good example for our children. Whether our parents live in our home or on their own, in an assisted-living community or a nursing home, can we make time for them? Can we deliberately and mindfully schedule time for them every day? Call regularly, visit when possible, and make them feel cherished? Shouldn’t be too hard to do if we remember how they did the same for us when we were younger or imagine how we would like to be treated by our children as we grow older. And it’s that much more doable when your company has your back.

Here are some tips for caring for your aging parents in today’s 24/7 society:

Choose priorities wisely.

Just as being a parent isn’t about being the best mom or dad every day, but rather about prioritizing between family and work on any given day, the same goes for being a caregiver to your parents. For instance, I can’t accompany my mom on every single doctor appointment, but there are some I absolutely want to attend, so I make sure I do.

Allow independence and choice.

Just because they might make decisions more slowly or are a bit more ambivalent about what to choose doesn’t mean you should make all the decisions for them. When traveling to visit my siblings, I let my mom choose the dates. I don’t force her to make a choice simply because it works for me, even if I’m the one driving her somewhere.

Have patience with them.

Don’t get annoyed when they change their mind about something or repeat themselves. Remind yourself of all the times they reread your favorite book to you or watched the same movie again and again. Manage your impatience with them as they did for you. Perhaps you can vent to your spouse or your siblings instead of taking it out on them.

Make time to be with them. Aside from the bills or doctor's appointments, do something with them that allows you time to talk about things they enjoy—stories of your childhood and their youth. My brother often tapes his conversations with my mom or when she chants the scriptures or prayers. And I’m grateful we have her voice memorialized for when she is no longer with us.

Try not to hurt their feelings.

And if you inadvertently do so, apologize, even if it isn’t your fault. Saying sorry never diminished anyone.

Keep their complaints to yourself.

When they complain about others—your siblings, friends or relatives—never never repeat it or share it with anyone. Remember, a day after they complained, they won’t remember they did so.

Try to simplify their lives

Organize things so it’s easy for you and convenient for them. Whether they live with you, on their own or in assisted living, get their bills paid automatically, bank and investment accounts monitored closely, doctor appointments and medication supervised, and food and nutrition needs assessed and met.

Love them to pieces.

You don’t have them for very long, so make every moment count.

Subha V. Barry is a world recognized diversity and inclusion expert and currently serves as the President of Working Mother Media