During my five-years as the Shadow Assistant Minister for Ageing, I’ve often spoken about how we need to change the way we think about ageing. 

This includes how we think about caring for our elderly parents – a topic I want to reflect on this holiday season.

As we live increasingly longer lives, many of us will not only face the devastating loss of a parent but may also need to care for them first - a significant role reversal which can happen either gradually, or quite suddenly.

I remember when my father in law started having serious health issues, and my mother in law started to repeat the same stories over and over again. Both times I felt my whole world shift. 

Perhaps you can relate to this – it’s a distinct sadness that wells up when you see your elderly parent falter, struggle with menial tasks, forget what they were saying mid-sentence or their body twitches without their permission.

Older age is not for the faint of heart. It can be confronting, uncomfortable, frightening and sometimes cause immense guilt. But we have to change our mindset, because these feelings aren’t helpful.

We need to keep asking ourselves “what do my parents want, what gives them meaning in life and how can I help make this happen?”

Caring for our elderly parents will look different for everyone. For some it might be taking them to appointments, helping around the house or a quick phone call each day. For others, it might involve helpwith medications, bathing, dressing or financial and legal help.

There is no doubt the role reversal of caring for a parent is a challenging and overwhelming experience – particularly when balancing the needs of our own families and careers. However, as a community we must start to embrace this reality as part of the ageing process and refuse to see it as a burden. 

I find it especially heartbreaking when I hear elderly people say they don’t want to “bother” or “burden” their children by asking for help. This is simply not the case and it is important that we shift the discourse away from one of ‘burden’ and instead to privilege. 

We need to wrap our elderly parents in love, help and support, and we need to listen to their needs– much the same as they did for us when we were children. 

It just might be the most precious time of connection we have with them.

Whether your parents age at home or move into an aged care home, they deserve to age with love, support and dignity. They deserve to feel valued, safe and be able age well however they chose.

Bookshelves are brimming with guides and books on raising children but the shelves are pretty bare when it comes to caring for elderly parents.

Here are a few important conversations you should be having with your parents to support them. These might seem like tricky topics to traverse, but they are important and they need to be had.
1. Where do they want to grow old?

Some parents may opt to live in a retirement village or have medical needs that can only be met in an aged care home. However, most people want to age at home,in familiar surroundings in the community they know. 

Do you need to seek extra home care or support to help them stay at home? Are there practical or structural modifications that need to be made around the home? What are the financial implications?
2. Financial 

Caring for our parents can encompass a range of things. Along with physical and emotional wellbeing, the management of other aspects of their lives - such as financial health and legal issues may also fall to you.

Older Australians are increasingly vulnerable to financial exploitation and are often reliant on a person of trust to act in their best interests. This is something that really bothers me - an unspoken form of elder abuse that usually occurs at the hands of someone trusted. Please be vigilant and take this responsibility seriously.
3. Future care options
It is so important we know how our parents want to be cared for at the end of their lives. This is one of the most important discussions you can have with your parents, albeit the hardest. 

It is never too early to start talking about or planning end of life care. It’s easier on everyone to have these conversations earlier and it will make the decisions less stressful later.

I know that family life is complex and complicated. But as we take time to reflect over the holiday season, I urge you take a moment to remind your parents that they are valued, respected and that it is a privilege to be there for them. 

Originally published in The Examiner, Thursday 27 December 2018.