The Challenge of Caring for Elderly Parents

loveisOne of the realities of having aging parents is that eventually adult children may become caregivers, a role many don’t anticipate happening until…well, until mom slips in the bathroom or dad crashes the car. Fast, sometimes mind-numbing decisions and changes invariably occur when adult children do not feel prepared to accept them. Adult children often tell themselves that their parents, although older, are perfectly fine living in their own house. When a traumatic event or diagnosis intervenes, adult children may find themselves rifling through desk drawers for account numbers, calling Medicare to explore coverage amounts and payments, contacting  siblings who live outside the city or state of the parents’ residence—all while trying to maintain some semblance of balance in their own homes! Then, while consulting with various medical professionals, it becomes clear that, at least for a specified time, it will not be in the best interests of the aging parent/s to remain in their home. Now what?

While it may feel like the world is crashing down, there are some steps you can take to ensure your parents remain independent as long as possible. First, take a deep breath. Determine the facts. Consult with one or both parents and siblings.  Accept that you’ll most likely take on some caregiving responsibilities, at least in the interim.  Now is the time to start some tough conversations and do some thorough preparation.

Utilize technology and remove obstacles. Technology enables us to be with our parents when we’re not physically there. QuietCare® relies on strategically placed motion sensors in their home to monitor elders. Life Alert® is another monitoring system that automatically alerts the police, fire department and ambulance service if your parents gets into trouble. You should also consider contacting the National Association of Home Builders’ aging specialists who can suggest improvements and adjustments in the home to keep your parent safe. Things like anti-scald devices on showers and faucets, carbon monoxide detectors, special smoke detectors and grab bars in the bathroom will improve their quality of life.

Work with their doctors and pharmacy. Go with your parents to doctor visits whenever possible and make sure you know what medications they’re taking.  Elders may think that asking the doctor questions is an intrusion and they should just take whatever the doctor says for granted.  Some elders prefer not to listen or actually hear what the doctor is saying. So it’s very important to be part of your parent’s medical team. As for medications, aging alters drug metabolism, so be sure to ask about side effects they should look for, including those that could arise if prescribed meds interact with any over-the-counter drugs or supplements your parent may be taking.

Power of Attorney. All adults, especially elderly adults, should designate someone who can speak for them when they can’t. A power of attorney and living will do that. The living will literally documents the elder’s wishes regarding his/her quality of life, and addresses issues like the use of feeding tubes and machines to keep the person alive. The power of attorney gives the caregiver legal authority to make sure the elder’s wishes are respected, as well as enables him to consult with medical professionals on other medical issues. Make copies and share with family, healthcare professionals, and even close friends.

Check with the parent’s insurance providers. Some insurances provide limited or in-home companion care with services that range from light housekeeping and cooking to the dispensing of medications. Such services could greatly alleviate the stress on both the elder and his/her adult child caregivers.

Visit frequently. The fact is, a traumatic event may signal the elder’s inability to live 100% independently. Visiting often helps to ensure that the elder parent remains safe, mentally sound and their living situation is optimal. Visits can also help an adult child look for any subtle changes, like gradual physical impairments, plants being neglected or mail being left unopened. Enlist your family and your parents’ trusted neighbors to check in, too. Dr. Molly Allen says it’s important for us to remember that “as parents age, they have plenty to grieve, including the loss of their own parents, siblings, friends, possibly some of their own children, and loss of the ability to go and do the things that used to be easy for that parent to perform.” So, Allen continues, “Remember that it is okay to ask if they seem to be depressed, and listen for the cues that they are having some issues adjusting to their losses.”

From the moment we are born, we begin to age. Throughout life, we experience developmental, emotional, intellectual and physical changes and challenges. Adult children of elders, however, are used to seeing their parents as the “grownups”, the “authoritative” adults, the ones in charge. When aging and physical deterioration forces our parents into a more dependent role, it can create dissonance for the adult child. Ongoing dialogue with elder parents, clear and documented understanding of the elder’s wishes, and preparations for the eventuality of old age can go a long way toward the experience being a positive one for elders and their adult children. And as Allen points out, “Elders can experience plenty of fear and confusion that can come about with the loss of mental and physical abilities. Be patient and enforce boundaries if a parent is acting out fear by lashing out. The ability to choose and to control something is vital for an aging person.  Don’t just patronize them, and do respect if they choose something that you wouldn’t.  It is still their life – allow them some dignity.”

Sources: US News & World Report, Psych Central, Dr. Molly Allen