Dear Dr. Koepp,
My 85 year old dad is calling me multiple times a day. It’s interrupting my time at work. Sometimes he needs something. Sometimes, he just wants to check in. He has someone assisting him, but he’s always calling me. Can you address how to handle an elderly parent who is calling me all day long.
Here are five strategies to try if your older loved one or your aging parent is calling you multiple times a day
1. Take the time to understand what’s driving this behavior.
It’s important to understand what may be prompting this behavior. Is there a new medical illness that’s been diagnosed? Is there a worsening of an already established medical condition? Is there a progression of dementia disorder, or fear and anxiety around an existing condition? Are they going through any big changes or anticipating big changes? Like the loss of a loved one or of their home? Have they recently moved? Become curious about your older loved one and this change.
2. Invite your loved one into the conversation about this behavior.
Invite your older loved one into the discussion about why they’re calling you multiple times a day? Ask what’s going on for them, ask if they can describe what’s happening just prior to calling you. Are they feeling lonely? Are they bored? Anxious? Do they look to you for support and soothing? Invite them into a discussion so that together, the two of you might brainstorm a solution together.
Your loved one is calling you because they rely on you- they trust you. As you work toward solving this problem, invite them in by asking the same questions you asked yourself in the first step. There are some stages of medical and mental health illnesses that may make this difficult. The process of inviting them in might also help you to get a sense of what they are and are not capable of at this time, which can be very helpful information.
3. Connect your loved one with friends, family, or community members
Identify others who would be willing to reach out to your aging parent for a chat or for some company. This can help with distraction if your loved one is anxious. It can offer connection if your loved one is lonely, or an activity to look forward to if your loved one is bored.
4. Identify activities your loved one can participate in
Helping your loved one to engage in activities helps to alleviate boredom and provide a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Start by asking your loved one if there are activities they used to engage in that they’d like to try again. Consider brainstorming activities in your loved one’s community or with their friends that they’d be willing to try. It can be anything from an organized activity (like a book club) or a grassroots volunteer activity. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, and older neighbor of mine was making masks for other older adults and people in the neighborhood who were essential workers. At every age, it’s important to feel as though we are a part of something. Older age, or living with an illness is no exception.
5. Manage expectations
If your loved one is calling you multiple times a day, it’s likely that it is interrupting your day, your work, and the tasks that you have to complete to keep your life going. This can really throw you off course and make you frustrated. It can help to manage expectations by telling your loved one the times of day that you will be calling them. So instead of your loved one calling you randomly throughout the day, you tell them in advance the times that work for you.
For example, you could say:
Dad, I’ll call you at 8am, noon, and 5pm. I’ll call you in the morning to see how you slept and how you’re feeling. I’ll call you around noon and check in, and I’ll call you in the evening when I’m making dinner to hear how your day went.
If you manage the expectation of how often you’re able to talk upfront, it will help to create a greater sense of security and certainty knowing that you will indeed call.
Above all, whatever you do, do it with compassion and with love.
It’s very common for older adults who are are relying on their adult children to fear that they will become a “burden”. If they sense that you’re frustrated or annoyed with them, this will reinforce the thought that they are “a burden”, which could lead to additional challenges, like depression.
Taking the time to identify your own needs and boundaries and learning to communicate them with love while also acknowledging your loved one’s needs is important in maintaining the health of your caregiving relationship.
Special note: If there are medical or mental health emergencies that are brewing, it’s important to create an emergency plan. Consider getting a life alert button for your loved one, and having friends and family checking in with your loved one at scheduled times.
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