Essential Conversations with. Dr. Amy: Discomfort in providing personal care for a parent

Caregiving for an aging parent can have many rewards and many difficulties. Today, we are more open about talking about our caregiving experiences, especially as the topic continues to receive more press and as our population ages and more of us find ourselves assisting our parents in various ways. Yet, there is a one challenge that people can be hesitant to discuss: their discomfort in providing personal care for their parent.

Caregiving for a parent of the opposite gender

This uneasiness may stem from several different causes, including the potential awkwardness in providing personal care to a parent of the opposite gender. Societal norms and familial norms usually dictate a certain amount of modesty and personal space between a parent and child, and this is significantly heightened between the adult child and the opposite-gender parent.

In my experience, this is most notable between sons and their aging mothers, likely because women are still viewed as the default nurturers and caregivers. However, sometimes people are just not comfortable engaging in these sensitive tasks with their parents, regardless of gender!

How to approach the situation

There are two issues at play as we consider how to make this situation easier: preserving the dignity of our aging parent and preventing embarrassment for ourselves. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce everyone’s discomfort and assure that proper care is provided.

If possible, acknowledge the situation and discuss it together. You may start by saying something like, “Mom, I want to make sure that you get the very best care possible. And, I am guessing both of us would be more comfortable if I was wasn’t the one helping you with some of the more personal tasks that need to be done. I’m wondering if we can talk about potential solutions. Who would be your first choice for helping you with personal care?” Not everyone will feel relaxed having this conversation, but if you and your aging parent can talk about it, then you are more likely to find solutions that work for both of you.

The benefits of paid caregiving

Whether or not you do discuss it, there are ways to manage these tricky situations. When possible, have a same-gender, paid caregiver assist your parent. There is a natural professional distance with paid caregivers that makes it easier for them to help with some of these sensitive tasks.

Again, because of our societal expectations of women as caregivers, some older men may feel comfortable with a paid caregiver who is a female, sometimes even more than having a male caregiver. This is a personal preference and should be discussed with your aging father, rather than making assumptions.

If your parent chooses retirement living, they will have a whole team of caregivers at their disposal. This can be very beneficial for you, as adult children often report that having paid caregivers for their parents allows their relationship to return to that of parent/child again. In addition, there is an added layer of privacy of having care provided in a retirement residence versus in your home that often makes everyone more comfortable.

Maintaining a semblance of privacy

Assuming hiring a paid caregiver is not an option, you’ll want to find ways to protect your parents’ dignity. This can be most challenging during bathing, toileting, and dressing. As much as possible, without compromising safety, ensure your parent has privacy, or is at least partially covered during those activities. It may take a bit more time to complete the task, but both of you are likely to feel more at ease.

Fostering independence

In addition, try to find ways that enhance your parent’s independence in doing those personal care tasks. For example, if there are adequate grab bars, a stable shower chair and a hand-held shower head, an older adult is more likely to shower without assistance, or at least with less assistance. If they still need help getting in and out of the shower safely, then you can also make sure they are wrapped in a towel they can remove once the shower curtain is closed. Similarly, while helping them get dressed, you can keep them mostly covered throughout the process.

Taking these steps will go a long way in helping both of you feel more comfortable. Most of all, try to maintain a sense of humour about the situation. Taking a light-hearted approach can significantly help ease the awkwardness for both of you.

Finally, the number one thing we can all do to help our aging parents perform personal care tasks is to imagine how we would want to be treated in a similar situation. That alone will likely spark creative ideas for approaching the task at hand.