South Bay panel offers advice to adult children with frail parents

Adults who find themselves caring for elderly parents can, at times, feel overwhelmed.

"People want to know what it means to care for an aging parent. Does it mean taking over completely? Does it mean having the parent move into your home? Does it mean financing their care?" said Avital Agam, a social worker with Jewish Family Service of Santa Clara County.

Agam was one of four professionals who spoke last month at Saratoga's Congregation Beth David for a panel discussion called "What Do I Do Now? Adult Children Coping with Frail Parents."

Agam acknowledges that there are no clear answers to the questions she poses.

"Each case is individual. You need to look at the whole picture and take in many factors, including your own work, health, financial situation, other family members, and the parent-child relationship involved," Agam told those attending the event, which was co-sponsored by the synagogue, Jewish Family Service and Sharone Hadassah of Santa Clara County.

"When communication between all parties is open it is much easier to come up with a plan. When that is not the case and old family issues come up, these unresolved issues can make things more difficult."

Rabbi Leslie Alexander, a community chaplain with the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, turns to the Fifth Commandment for inspiration when dealing with such issues.

"Children of aging parents want to do the right thing in terms of honoring their parents," Alexander said, "but find they don't always know how far they have to go without quickly coming to the end of their patience."

According to Alexander, adult children honor their parents by offering shelter, food, concern and care.

Agam addressed how to maintain one's own quality of life while taking care of an elderly parent.

She advised arranging for a geriatric assessment of the situation, identifying the parent's problems and then seeking help from family members or a professional experienced in the needs of the elderly.

"There is a difference between hands-on caring and emotional caring," Agam said. "Anyone can do the hands-on caring. Family members need to be there for the emotional caring."

Resources available in the community, she noted, include live-in help, Meals on Wheels, lunches at senior centers, adult day-care sites, retirement homes, assisted living, nursing homes, hospice care and mental health services.

In discussing end-of-life issues, Alexander told the audience that it is helpful to seek counsel from a rabbi.

From the legal perspective, attorney Rebecca King suggested dealing with financial issues early on to avoid confusion, resentment and family squabbles later on.

"People can do their children a big favor by pre-planning and arranging for and pre-buying burial plots," said King, who is also a financial planner.

Regardless of how one handles caring for frail parents, Agam cautioned that one issue must remain at the top of the agenda.

"It is important to find the right balance between caring for an aging parent and taking care of ourselves," she said. "Because if we don't take care of ourselves, we can't take care of others."