Caring for your aging parents
Aided by advances in health care, nutrition, and exercise, America’s “boomer” generation—those born between 1946 and 1964—can expect to live longer than ever before. In 2000, adults age 65 and older represented just 12% of the population, but by 2030, the U.S. Administration on Aging expects that figure to exceed 19%.
As seniors live longer, their care will increasingly fall to the “sandwich” generation—adults who are caring simultaneously for their children and adult parents. AARP reports that in 2008, 17% of men and 28% of women age 50+ were providing at least basic care to a parent. Hugh Delehanty, co-author of Caring for Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide, believes that family members are responsible for 80% of elder care in the United States.
In many families, the role reversal that occurs when adult children become responsible for their parents is challenging for each generation. Understanding, education, and communication can preserve positive relationships, ensure the well-being of elderly parents, and ease the strain on family caregivers. Experts agree that adults should periodically assess their parents’ situation from various perspectives, research available resources, create a care plan, and seek support.
Assessing the Needs of Older Adults
Ohio State University Extension Educator Susan Holladay, author of Enhancing the Adult Child/Parent Partnership (©2011), says, “As parents age, adult children find themselves in the role of helping their aging parents make decisions. Some of these decisions may involve a change in the parent’s living arrangements, daily activities, personal and health care, and financial resources. Adult children become involved in the decision-making process by providing information, advising, investigating options, networking, locating available resources, and assessing how well these resources benefit the individual.”
Family dynamics and control issues may make it difficult to begin these conversations. David Solie, author of How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders, suggests using “mind maps” to help elderly adults visualize the realities of certain situations, such as their ability to drive a car or maintain a home alone.
Holladay advises adult children to approach assessment conversations with empathy. She says, “Be sensitive to the physical, emotional, and cognitive changes facing your parent. These are generally changes out of their control. As long as they are capable, help them gain a sense of control by including them in all decisions that involve them.”
Use these key areas to help you asses your parent’s situation:
Wellness: Proper nutrition, exercise, and socializing are proven to eliminate or reduce many of the medical and psychosocial problems associated with aging. Check the refrigerator to make sure it is stocked with fresh, nutritional food, and ask if your parents need help with meal preparation.
For infirm adults, nutrition intervention can often help reduce hospital admissions. Regular exercise should include weight-bearing activities to help preserve muscle mass and balance exercises to help prevent falls. Transportation to active adult centers, visits by volunteers, or engaging in-home companions from a qualified home health care agency can ensure that seniors have mental and social stimulation.
Safety: Older adults are injured daily in and around their homes. Survey your parents’ home for potential hazards, and immediately correct items that cause threat. These typically preventable injuries are caused by common hazards such as improperly located telephone and electrical cords or outdated electrical outlets and switches. Light fixtures with incorrect wattage, unsecured rugs, runners and mats can also pose a hazard in the home.
Check the smoke detectors, be weary of unsafe space heaters and create a comprehensive emergency exit plan. Be sure emergency numbers are clearly posted and walkways and hallways properly lit.
Money: Faced with longer lifespans and lesser retirement savings, many Americans risk running out of funds to support them as they age. Review your parents’ financial situation to identify potential problem areas, and make sure you understand all sources of income, assets and debts.
Ask a financial advisor to help determine if their medical and insurance coverage is adequate and includes long-term care, if necessary. Find out if your parent has a will, living will, and power of attorney: know where they are located or help parents create these important documents.
Health: Monitor your parent closely for changes in physical and mental health. Be aware of any medications that your parent is taking, and consult your parent’s health care provider if you have questions about medication administration—you may wish to engage a home health care provider to ensure that elderly adults are taking medication correctly.
Discuss immunizations with your parent’s physician: the CDC advises all adults age 65 and older to have single-dose vaccines for pneumonia and shingles, a booster for Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis (Tdap), and an annual flu shot prior to influenza season.
Support for Caregivers
As you assess your parents’ situation, you may find that that you need help to meet their needs and yours. Many support services are available to help aging adults live comfortably and safely at home, where they can enjoy their familiar network of friends, places, and routines.
Research volunteer resources in your community, and learn about in-home services—from assistance with daily living activities to skilled nursing—available from home health care agencies. Alternatively, service-oriented housing facilities, such as independent housing, assisted living communities, and nursing homes, may offer on-site security, professional health care, and social activities.
While caring for an aging parent can be emotionally rewarding, it can also be exhausting. Caregivers cite “burnout” as one of their biggest problems. To cope with daily stress, consider joining a caregiver support group, exploring resources available through your workplace (such as flex time or counseling), and sharing responsibility with siblings and older children.
When you need to “recharge your batteries,” respite care services offered by home health care agencies will allow you to enjoy a short getaway or vacation, knowing that your loved ones will be well cared for while you are away.