Aging parents present unique challenges to adult children, and there are all sorts of scenarios that can intensify the situation. Maybe your loved one recently fell or got into a minor car accident. Or maybe Mom just left the oven on all day. But you are concerned that things could be worse next time. The problem is, you can't always be there when Mom needs you. Moreover, you know she’ll never agree to leave her house for an assisted living facility or nursing home.
This is a very delicate situation, and to honor the wishes of your parent, maybe you’re thinking about taking care of her at her house, whenever you can.
Millions of people make this decision every year. Knowing what to expect can make a lot of difference in what can be an enormous undertaking. So, consider this advice from real caregivers on best practices when caring for an aging parent.
Safety is the biggest concern for seniors and their families. Janet is a registered nurse (RN) who worked as a supervisor of professional caregivers. She says maintaining the personal safety of an aging loved one is the biggest problem most families face. “One of the first signs a senior needs help is they begin to fall,” says Jane. “They may also become forgetful, for example forgetting to turn off the stove, which could lead to dangerous consequences. These types of accidents are usually the first of a series of events that lead to hospitalization and the senior being removed from the home.“
To prevent this, Jane encourages families to assess their loved one’s environment, health, physical and mental abilities to determine what level of care or supervision is necessary to help keep your parent at home as long as possible.
Transportation is a major concern for families because many don’t feel safe with their senior loved one driving. Vision eventually declines with age and reaction time slows, both of which increase the chance for car accidents.
Over 6,800 adults over 65 were killed in 2015 and over 260,000 were treated in emergency departments for motor vehicle crash injuries. This resulted in 19 older adults dying and 712 injured in crashes on average every day. So unexplained dents or scrapes on your loved one's car can be significant signs they might need help.
However, this can be problematic for many seniors as taking away the ability to drive limits freedom. “One of the biggest fears of seniors is the loss of autonomy,” offers Nicole, a long-time professional caregiver. “Alleviating those fears is the biggest hurdle.” The inability to drive can also exacerbate isolation, a big concern for many families.
It is essential to work with your loved one to help them identify safe transportation. Services like Lyft or Uber, or public transportation can be useful options if your parent still needs to get around without you available. “Your local senior center is a great place to start looking for help for your loved one get to appointments and run errands safely,” Nicole suggests. “If they still like to be ‘on the go,’ but can no longer drive (safely), a professional caregiver can be that freedom…they can still go shopping, visit friends, and the grandkids without worrying about driving themselves.”
Hydration and Nutrition
Hydration and proper nutrition are major concerns for seniors. Sr. Christina Neumann, a professional caregiver in a home for the elderly, says that some seniors, “do not seem to be eating properly because you can see what they have in their refrigerator. They often don't have the ingredients to prepare balanced meals.” Christina suggests keeping an eye on their body weight. Any significant shifts in weight, either a gain or loss, can indicate a problem with nutrition or hydration.
As we age, several changes occur that can increase the risk for dehydration or even overhydration. Older adults have a decreased ability to feel thirst, have lower body water and experience a decline in kidney function, all of which can impact hydration status. Always give Mom or Dad gentle reminders to drink fluids regularly to prevent dehydration and possible hospitalization.
Jenny Schmidt, the owner of Black Hills Advocate a South Dakota advocacy group for seniors, states that some seniors need assistance with daily activities such as light housekeeping and maintaining in-home organization. A messy home or hoarding behavior can be a sign your loved one needs some support. Getting help with housework, decluttering, or keeping a tidy space can help improve day to day function in the home.
Neumann states that personal hygiene can also be a concern for seniors and a sign they might need some additional assistance. She suggests that “odors (a sign they are not using the toilet or having accidents), soiled clothing or bed linens, and poor appearance” are all a sign your loved one may not be able to take care of the activities of daily living on their own.
Maintaining a Proper Medication Schedule
Most seniors take multiple medications, with the average senior taking at least four different prescriptions. Schmidt states that some seniors need gentle reminders to take their medication. She notes that others may need someone to handle the medication dosing altogether. Depending on their needs, this can change the type of care you may need to provide. The important thing is that to be sure your loved one is regularly and properly taking the necessary medications day to day.
Professionals excel in prescription management, an essential consideration if you aren't able to provide detailed care for your mom or dad.
Loneliness is a major problem among seniors since they can become socially isolated, particularly if they have physical limitations or are unable to drive safely. These limitations may prevent your loved one from engaging in activities they once enjoyed, leaving them feeling depressed or neglected. Trying to provide regular companionship for a senior loved one can be challenging for families who are trying to juggle the demands of their own lives as well.
Nicole says that sometimes seniors will isolate themselves. “One thing that is often overlooked is a lack of access to your loved one…if you have been denied visitation on a regular basis that might be a red flag,” she added. Social isolation can lead to depression and a lowered motivation. Keeping your loved one engaged socially in family activities or with friends as much as possible can be a way to help reduce loneliness.
Caring for a parent can have financial ramifications. A recent survey by SCAN Health Plan reported that 47 percent of family caregivers have experienced financial challenges due to caregiving demands. Sometimes financial hardships are caused by having to pay for services and care for their loved ones, or from missing work or having to quit working altogether.
If finances are an issue, it is essential to have open communication with your parent about the various options to fund their care, if needed. There are many options available for seniors to help financially with different levels of care.
Asking for Help
Determining the best course of action for caring for your loved one can be overwhelming. Jane says the best thing you can do is ask for help from not only friends and family, but also from professionals. Explore the services available in your area and speak to others who have experienced something similar. Your parent’s doctor will be an exceptional resource as you try to understand his or her care needs better.
Don’t wait until the situation balloons beyond your control. Caregiving is not easy. Use this advice and be proactive in your parent’s care.