I still remember the days when my parents chose my wardrobe. They paid for my clothes and, therefore, I had to wear what they wanted. Needless to say, their selections were less than fashionable, resulting in me getting a healthy dose of teasing on the playground. This helped me learn a valuable lesson: When others get to make decisions on your behalf, it’s really hard for them to set aside their own tastes and motives. I call this the Decision Maker Bias.
Many decades later, I now find myself heavily involved in my parents’ care and often have to decide what’s best for them. Should they move into a facility or live on their own? Do they need a caregiver or perhaps even a geriatric care manager? Should they downsize or keep living in their house with a stairway? I constantly catch myself forming strong opinions on each of these topics. But after some introspection, I realize that there is a trace of my own interest in them. I genuinely want my parents to be happy, so I created a framework that helps me spot decisions where I might be affected by the Decision Maker Bias.
We often try to get our parents to move closer to ourselves, thinking that they will benefit from us being able to spend more time with them. However, we also have to consider the cultural impact on our parents’ lives. Would a culturally conservative 90-year-old from the Midwest feel at home near Berkeley, CA? Will they be able to connect with their neighbors? And will they find a local church that fits their needs? While it’s true that we might be seeing them on weekends, they may experience isolation and depression on all other days of the week. Also, their old friends and neighbors they leave behind are often restricted in their mobility, making it very hard to see each other again. When relocating an elder, we have to remember that this is more traumatic for them than we can imagine.
Safety is the cornerstone argument in almost all elder care discussions; we use it to downgrade houses, move our parents to assisted living facilities, veto long trips and outdoor activities, etc. But what we often forget is that money can buy safety—you can hire caregivers, install home safety equipment, use smart monitors, etc. In other words, the question should not be: “Is it safe?” but instead: “Can we afford to make it safe?” You won’t always be able to say yes, but be aware that being an overprotective adult child is not always in the best interest of your parents—sometimes the extra effort and cost it will take to keep them safe might be worth the happiness they’ll get out of their wishes for autonomy and independence coming true.
I don’t believe that this is happening between me and my parents, but I’ve certainly encountered it as part of my work. As caregivers and elders spend a lot of time together, inevitably, they start forming strong bonds which can make the adult children jealous. Particularly, the topic of oversharing sensitive family stories seems to come up a lot. Caregivers are in a difficult spot; as a companion, a part of their job is to be a great listener, but not all topics are good for their job security. Adult children can get suspicious that the caregivers are being nosy, and it’s hard to determine who initiates such conversations. What’s clear in those situations is that the adult children face the Decision Maker Bias: Their hurt feelings can hinder their parents’ ability to bond with their caregiver.
When encouraging my mom to be more active, I usually suggest that we go for a walk. I just love the outdoors, and it’s one of my favorite ways to bond with her. However, I recently read in the New England Journal of Medicine that dancing trumps all other recreational activities when it comes to mental acuity in aging. Well, dancing is my least favorite activity, and now I face the same dilemma that parents face when helping their kids decide which sports to pursue—should I encourage something that we’ll both enjoy? This just reminds me once again that our personal taste has a real impact on the people we care for.
Are there any other areas where you can spot the Decision Maker Bias? Leave them in the comments so that we can all be more aware, and get better at realizing our bias when we make decisions on behalf of the ones we love.