Aging in Place – Who’s in Control?

How does it feel?

At some point in time, often due to a trigger event, our seniors end up ceding control to others, usually to their adult children or other relatives.   For those of us who fall into the “other” category, we often are tempted to totally take over their affairs – financial, medical, household – because we want to make sure they are aging in place safely, and we feel we know best.  And we very well might!  But – and now this is the voice of experience talking – we should take a moment to step back and think how it must feel for our seniors, who likely have been relatively independent for most of their adult lives, to suddenly find themselves facing a new reality.  No matter how close the pre-existing parent/child relationship, this shift in control changes everything.

Imagine you are your elderly mom for a moment.  Living on your own for years, you have muddled through just fine.  Yes, the roof is leaking, the toilet no longer works, the cupboard is bare, and you have a bit of trouble driving now, but in your mind, you’re still functioning.  Now become the adult child: you have come home to visit, the house is a smelly, dirty wreck (our oldest-old tend to lose their sense of smell and clarity of vision along the way), and the house is collapsing around your parent, who is obstinately insisting things are all right the way they are.

What to do?

The adult child impulse here usually goes one of two ways: 1) take over and get things shipshape, your way or 2) take Mom’s words to heart and do nothing because she says she doesn’t want you to, while feeling guilty about your inaction.  Guess which path yours truly initially took!  Yes, (1) is the correct answer…  A big problem with number 2 of course is that if something bad happens, which frankly it is likely to sooner or later if inaction is chosen, the adult child will feel just awful.

But there is a third way for the adult child, if your senior is still basically in control of his or her faculties: prioritize what needs to be done (i.e. pick your battles), develop a proposed timeline, breathe, and sit down with your senior to discuss the situation and ask for their input.  Note that “discuss” means just that: it’s not an imposition of your will, or of theirs.  Family dynamics may make this “discussion” easy or hard.  But by taking this path, you offer your senior a modicum of control during a very difficult time in their lives.  In our hypothetical example above, this would involve explaining kindly that perhaps because their senses of smell or sight are not what they used to be, they may not realize the true state of the household, and then making a couple of suggestions for improvement so that they may continue safely aging in place.  Coming up with a complex plan to solve everything may just be too overwhelming for them to deal with and will immobilize them.  If you feel they are being unreasonable, listen to them, plant the seed of your proposed solution, and step back.  You can revisit it later.  No one likes to feel pressured into a major decision.

Change is scary for most of us, and for our seniors, coupled with a ceding of at least some portion of their control and authority, it can be terrifying.  By taking your time, patiently explaining your solution – perhaps multiple times – and asking for their input, you can hopefully come up with a path forward that’s a win-win and that will improve all of your lives, while granting them a feeling of retaining some control and at the same time allowing them to continue aging in place safely.

Some control feels good!

I have been working with our local equine therapy organization, New Canaan Mounted Troop ( – where not coincidentally I rode for a decade in my youth in their Junior Cavalry program, and where I learned just about all of my leadership and organizational (not to mention cleaning!) skills – in an effort to develop/promote a therapeutic adaptive riding program for seniors.  My 93 year old mother is a driving force in this, as was my friend’s father who alas recently passed from Alzheimer’s before we could get this launched.  Both of them rode as children, my mother against Olympian Bill Steinkraus (no contest) and my friend’s dad in Madison Square Garden, and would have enjoyed riding a horse at some level as long as they were still able.  When I talked with Mom about why she felt she’d enjoy sitting on a horse again, amongst other reasons she said, “It’s a great feeling to be able to control this large animal on your own, especially when you’ve had to give up so much control over your own life.”  Wow!  Mom always has the best insights.

FYI here’s a quick video showcasing the equine therapy program at NCMT, which currently focuses mostly on children and young adults with disabilities:

Go for the win-win

So please be mindful, in all of your dealings with your seniors, of their innate need to have some control over their remaining days.  This can be at the simplest level – letting Mom empty or load the dishwasher, or feed the pets, etc.  Worst case, you can redo the dishes later.  It really is not that important that they be done perfectly the first time.

Recently we had to move our family’s classic car out of the garage so it (the garage) could be painted.  Starting that car is a challenge, at least for me, as there are all sorts of buttons and levers to push to adjust the fuel/oxygen supply.  But my mom can do it like a champ, because she’s been doing it for 60 plus years.  She really wanted to move the car as well, which was truly a bad idea given her limited vision. We came up with a reasonable compromise: she could start it and I could drive it!  This gave her the chance to really be helpful, and to do something way better than I could (always something she relishes), and I could actually move the car after reminding her gently that her eyesight was no longer good enough to drive safely.

At the end of the day, long term success in helping your seniors manage their daily lives is much likelier if you can help them keep some control and make them feel part of the solution.


Mom starting our classic car!