Virginia Morris Answers Viewer Questions on Caring For Elderly


April from Dallas, Texas: My mom is 88 and has cooked supper every day for 60 years. How can I convince her to stop cooking? I'm afraid she will set the kitchen on fire or burn herself seriously.

If your mother is at risk of setting the house on fire because she has some form of dementia and has poor judgment, then you need to get involved right away. Remove the stove handles or disconnect the stove. You might just tell her it's broken. Then, find a meal delivery program or be sure there are things she can heat in the microwave or eat cold. If cooking is her passion, find recipes that don't involve a flame. Some appliances, like toaster ovens and electric kettles, shut off automatically.

If, on the other hand, your parent is mentally competent, then it's a very different story. Visit during mealtimes and watch her cook. Is she really at any risk? What, exactly, is the danger? Is there some way to reduce the risk?

Perhaps you can get her a pair of good oven gloves; be sure the fire alarm works; keep a small fire extinguisher near the stove and show her how to work it; be sure there is a clear automatic dial button on the phone for the fire department; and be sure that she is not cooking in her bathrobe or anything with droopy sleeves that might catch on fire.

Talk to her about your concerns and see what she thinks. Listen to her and discuss ideas for reducing the risk, and discuss what she'll do when she really can no longer cook for herself.

But at the end of the day, it's important for all of us to realize that while we should discuss the risks and options, and insure our parents' safety in any way we can, we are not their parents or their prison guards and we can't always stop them from doing things that they want to do. Competent adults, even at 88, have the right to take risks and make decisions, even if we consider those decisions foolish.

(Note: This does not apply to driving, in which not only is your parent's life at risk, but someone else's life is risk. In this case, you have to be more actively involved and unyielding.)

April from Bonners Ferry, Idaho: How do you deal with a feuding family that can't agree on what to do with a 90-year-old relative? (Some children refusing to help financially -- but they still expect to be on the mother's will. Arguments over money.)

There are two issues here. The first is siblings (or cousins, aunts, etc.). When a parent needs help, all sorts of old family feuds and childhood angers and resentments rear their ugly heads. People need to tread very carefully. I suggest that you hold a somewhat formal meeting. Get everyone together (or on speakerphone) to discuss your relative's care, finances, etc. Have an agenda and perhaps bring in an expert – family mediator, geriatric care manager or, in this case, perhaps a financial advisor.

Remember, you aren't there to discuss why your sister stole your boyfriend in 11th grade or how your cousin tattled on you when you were six. You are there to talk exclusively about your relative's care and needs. Also, keep in mind that each person comes to this with their own issues, relationship with this elderly relative, financial situation, priorities, other responsibilities, etc. You have to expect that others are not going to see this the same way you do, but that doesn't make them wrong.

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