The question: My father overworks himself because he was laid off a number of years ago and he hasn’t made as much money, or pension, since then. He feels like he needs to work six days a week, and take any overtime offered by his current job, to make as much money as he can before retiring in a few years. But I see how tired and quiet the long days are making him, and he is becoming a wreck behind the wheel, driving too slowly and missing familiar turns in traffic. How can I get him to recognize that his health is more important than work?
The answer: It can be upsetting to watch your father overwork himself at an age when you would hope he has the luxury to slow down and relax in anticipation of enjoying his upcoming retirement years. It’s interesting how difficult it can be to cope with a transition in roles: as our parents get older, as children we end up inevitably being placed into the caretaking/protective roles our parents once served for us.
There are two distinct issues – your father’s decision (albeit not necessarily by voluntary choice) to work an inordinate number of hours to plan for his future, and the possible safety risks posed to both himself and others on the road.
It can be helpful to parcel these two issues out and address them separately. Confounding them will probably lead to frustration for both of you, and may place your father in a defensive position.
Try to understand where your dad is coming from. It can feel awful to be in a position where you are uncertain about your future, particularly as we age. Your father is probably worried and anxious about the future, as well as frustrated or even anger at himself or his past circumstances. The reality is he may well need to be working the level he is to have a future that he once imagined.
During a time when you are both feeling relaxed, start a conversation with your dad about his future. Talk generally about what his hopes and dreams are for retirement. This may help you get a picture of what he is working toward. Then gently inquire about whether the means he is currently adopting (i.e., hours worked) are necessary to achieve those goals.
Offer to help him with his planning – you may suggest that he may find it helpful to sit down with a financial advisor who can help him map out his plans in more detail. Keep the conversation light and supportive, and be mindful that he probably will have a lot of pride around these issues.
In a separate conversation, express your concerns about his health. Describe what you are seeing – be specific and objective (for example, have you directly observed his driving difficulties?). Tell him directly how you feel – that you are worried and want to see him as healthy as possible. Ask if there are things that you can do that may help. Offer to go to his family physician with him to talk about possible causes and contributions. It’s amazing how often parents – or any family member for that matter – will be more willing to heed the advice from a professional.
If he is resistant, and you have concerns about his driving, you have an obligation to inform his family doctor. Consent issues do you not apply here – meaning that if you have some concern of risk, it is in your right to call his physician (the doctor cannot release any information back to you without your father’s consent).
You can’t magically get your father to value his health more than work, but you can guide him toward possible solutions that improve his situation, and most importantly make it safe for him and others around him.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .
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