Illness, finances, mood changes: Are you ready to care for ageing parents?

Be ready for resistance—many elders will fight
the idea of a ‘yaya’ tooth and nail

My parents Romy and Alice Honasan in Cagayan de Oro, circa 1982. He would pass away the following year, and she would outlive him by 37 years—long enough to meet her great-grandchildren.

I LOST my 95-year-old mother last February 29 after a few years of being in charge of her care, and some three months of critical care in the hospital and at home, with the help of a palliative care group.

Caring for ageing parents

I with my mom Alice Ballesteros Honasan, brothers Bert (left) and Greg at her 95th birthday—her last—in November 2019

I’m still processing what the last few months have meant, especially as we dove into quarantine lockdown a mere 10 days after we buried her. During her wake, however, I spoke to an alarming number of friends and Mama’s contemporaries who seemed ill-prepared for what my family went through. Several have asked me about the process. I even spoke to a good friend of my parents, in her 80s, who said confidently, “I don’t need a yaya yet”—while her daughter, wide-eyed, silently mouthed behind her, “Tell her! Tell her!”

So, to everyone from my or other generations facing the reality of ageing parents sooner than later, here is some advice.

1. Make sure your parents have a trusted, responsible point person—a househelp or yaya in their employ, or a dedicated relative—already in place. Why? Because when it comes time to call in reinforcements like caregivers and nurses, a good yaya will easily slip into the role of commander-in-chief and point person in your behalf. My mother’s yaya of five years, Dang, graduated from being sole caregiver, to senior yaya with a caregiver helping her, and ultimately, to feeding nurses, monitoring supplies and informing me of what was needed—essential if you’re working and not at home most of the time.

Your mom/dad is still fine and doesn’t need a yaya, you say? Tell me that again in five years or so. By then, you might have a hard time finding and training somebody raw and unfamiliar with your parents’ quirks and preferences—and believe me, caring for an elder parent can be too much for one person to handle. My life became so much easier when Dang came—and Mama didn’t agree to having a yaya until she was 90!

Be ready for resistance—some elders may fight the idea of a yaya tooth and nail. But foist, impose, force, gently threaten if necessary. It will be for everyone’s good.

With grandchildren Kai, Kuki, Tino and Hara, 2017

Also, as they say—it takes just one little accident. My mom had to fall, hit her head, and send us running to the emergency room for stitches and an X-ray for her to finally agree that she was no longer safe alone.

Alice Honasan (left) at the 80th birthday of her sister Leonor (center) in May 2019; rightmost is sister Nena.

2. Discuss responsibilities for care with your siblings. It was clear in my case—as I was the youngest, the only single one, and the only girl among three remaining siblings. The responsibility fell on me, with my brothers contributing resources and logistical support, like when we needed a driver for hospital visits. If there are several of you, ask the eldest to initiate clarifying duties and responsibilities. And if you’re single, don’t let your siblings completely off the hook if they have families, as some will inevitably use that as an excuse. You’re in this together. Which brings us to the bloody matter of…

3. Finances. If your parents have their own money for their retirement and medical care, or if they’re still covered by their own or your insurance, good for you. We’re grateful Daddy had provided for Mama. If they’re neither secure nor insured, here’s something my friend initiated: He and his siblings set aside a certain amount every month in anticipation of their parents’ hospital bills.
Again, nobody should be exempted, unless a sibling is dealing with his or her own medical problem. (Frankly, I think having more kids is no excuse, but that’s just me.) It’s been a while, and the money has accumulated, so my friend and his siblings can heave a sigh of relief, but wisely, they haven’t stopped. Of course, if one sibling is well-off and willing to pay the bills, fine.
But parents must be the responsibility of ALL their children, so don’t let a bum brother or whiny sister get away with it.

The ultimate dog ‘lola’ with my furbabies Kiko (on armrest) and Kikay (asleep on bed)

On the subject of money: If you’ve got a single surviving parent and he or she is pretty convinced you won’t rob him or her blind, suggest that he or she convert bank accounts into joint ones (and/or), with you or any sibling he or she trusts. It will make life infinitely easier when he or she passes. Sure, Mama would half-joke about my stealing her money when she was younger and feistier, but towards her latter years, she actually asked me to put all the accounts in my name, because “I don’t understand any of that.” I’m grateful my brothers trusted me enough not to question the arrangement at all. Otherwise, siblings will have to sit down and talk about this, no matter how difficult.

Since she was modestly liquid when she died, as she had disposed of all other property, Mama refused to leave a will—“Bahala na kamo,” she said in Bicolano. This can be iffy if your parents have property, so, as another friend did, insist and bring the lawyer to him or her yourself, and make sure everyone is around when the surviving parent signs. Otherwise, if it’s only money, the law is clear, I learned—it’s divided equally among all children, including the dead children’s heirs.

4. Be ready for physical changes. There comes a point when the deterioration will seem fast and alarming, but it’s par for the course. Offer an arm when they are unsteady—Mama never wanted to use a cane or walker, and insisted on being held—and slow down. You will have to talk slower and louder. Your parents will need more trips to the hospital for aches and pains. They will be more forgetful, and will need help in the bathroom. I had to learn to change diapers, wash Mama’s butt, give her a bath and prepare her food when Dang had her days off. If you’re squeamish, make sure you have back-up.

At her 90th birthday party in 2015, with old friend Caridad Sanchez Babao

4. Be ready for psychological changes. As my psychiatrist explained when I complained about Mama’s seeming selfishness and short temper, it’s not only memory and faculties that deteriorate, but even their sense of logic. Don’t fret if your ageing parent seems to be changing personality—but your patience will be tested.
Mama still resented having a yaya when Dang came along, so she was nasty, critical and threatened to replace her constantly; good thing I had warned Dang about the moods. It took over six months for the relationship to settle; soon, Mama was saying “No, Dang does it this way,” when I took over changing her diapers.

Still, you must make an effort to explain and discuss things, because more than ever, they will want to know and be involved. We used to joke that Mama’s FOMO (fear of missing out) leveled up when she became less mobile; that will be true of many of the elderly.

5. Please, work out any issues you have left. You will find yourself in a position of dominance, when your parent becomes dependent on you and must abide by what you say, and it is a humbling experience. I had to ask forgiveness, and learn to forgive, as well; it made for a wonderful closure after many years of complex emotions. Make the first move while you can.

6. Finally, when the end seems imminent, this is what worked for me.
Home care is the best choice when it’s available to you. Mama was so much more comfortable, and she was even conversational when we celebrated our last Christmas together. Palliative care at home with a good company can be costly, but is worth every peso, and way cheaper than hospitalization. Mama’s nurses became family.

With Toronto-based grandchildren Joel, Josh, and JJ during one of the boys’ visits to Manila

If money is a problem, again, work out a schedule among family members for bedside duty, but make sure a doctor can make regular visits.

Prepare everything beforehand, from what he or she will wear in the coffin to whatever documents you need. If you have joint accounts, this would be a good time to clean them out.

If your parent is on his or her sickbed, try not to make your own life grind to a halt, however. Take care of him or her, but keep living. This will also make it easier to move forward.

That being said, tell your ageing parents you love them every single day. Squeeze those wrinkled, weak hands that used to carry you. In the end, there should only be love.


About author


She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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