Helping Your Aging Parents: What to Expect by Bob Lowry
One of the toughest things many of us face is dealing with our parents as they age. Watching someone you love decline is not pleasant. I will tell you my parents’ story because it is probably rather typical, and the one I know best.
As my mom and dad started struggling with older age issues I had to learn as I went along. Since I lived within 35 minutes of their home, I became the primary caregiver. My brothers lived quite far away. They did what they could with occasional visits, but the bulk of the responsibility fell on my wife and me. We were just fine with that role and enjoyed a strong loving relationship with mom and dad.
In 2006, my parents had the foresight to move into a retirement community. Dad was 82 and mom was 79. At that point, both were in good physical and mental shape, certainly well enough to be allowed into the community. It offered independent and assisted living options as well as a nursing care center. They wanted to avoid the situation where one or both became unable to care for themselves or too sick to be accepted into such a facility. We had discussed other options: caring for them in their own home for as long as possible, or even moving in with us.
But, in the end mom and dad insisted that the benefit of the three level system was best. As it turned out their timing was excellent. Dad was a trouper but his failing memory and hearing loss often left him somewhat befuddled. Within 18 months my mom’s health began to take a dramatic turn for the worse. Four years after moving to the community she died. Dad made it on his own for several more years, dying in 2015 at age 91.
Anyone with aging parents knows about all the daily decisions that I faced. Can anything be done to make their independent cottage safer to help prevent falls, burns, or other accidents? Do the bathrooms have grip bars? Are the throw rugs slippery? What in-home services does the facility offer? Asking these questions directly to my parents usually didn’t generate helpful responses. For quite awhile their contention was that they could handle everything even when that was not so. Finally, I had to just go ahead and take the necessary steps.
Older folks often suffer from poor nutrition. Meals are skipped or poorly planned. Staying properly hydrated is a major problem. If the person’s eyesight is failing or gone, even the heating of meals becomes a big challenge. Luckily, the facility where my folks lived had a few dining options so two of the three daily meals were taken care of. Breakfast at home or a light lunch was possible for the first few years. Then, too often, one of these meals would be skipped or forgotten.
Next on my list were financial issues. Again, some foresight proved very helpful. Various health and legal directives were up to date. What about paying bills and taking care of taxes? I assume that this can be an area of conflict, particularly if the relationship between parent and grown child isn’t the best. The fear of being taken advantage of is very real for seniors. Careful explanations of the consequences of missing credit card payments, utility bills, or tax problems are required.
My dad was more than willing to turn almost all of that over to me. I was able to interact directly with their investment counselor and make decisions. After being added to the checking account I paid the few bills that still were required.
One the biggies I had yet to deal with was the taking away of the car keys. From discussions with friends and what I read in various blogs, I knew this would not be fun. My mom was unable to drive the last four years of her life due to macular degeneration and other injuries. So dad was the designated driver to take them to doctor’s appointments, food shopping, and all the errands of daily living.
I checked his car every time I visited for new dents or scratches. Even though the retirement community has shuttle and on-property transportation, he liked this last bit of true independence. Finally, at age 88 he agreed he was putting himself and others in too much danger to continue. The solution was to gift the car to a granddaughter. He didn’t want to let go of the keys, but felt good about helping her.
Each parent took multiple pills every day, so the management of that couldn’t be left to chance. I met with their family doctor and had the legal authority to intercede if needed. Of course, there was no one to guarantee that the right pills were taken, at the right time, and in the correct dosage as long as they lived independently. I watched for signs of trouble and understood that a move into assisted living might be triggered by a pill problem.
Memory loss comes with age. Already I sometimes have those frustrating “senior moments.” Both parents were having issues in this area. In my mom’s case, she broke her leg and ankle a few years before her death. That put her in a hospital for almost two weeks and then into the nursing center. She didn’t remember breaking her leg. I assume some of that is the brain blocking out bad experiences. But, it is still shocking to me that whole episode was not real to her at all.
In his last few years dad had almost no short-term memory either. Luckily, he was a list-maker. His daily to-do list was written down in great detail in a notebook he carried with him always. He finally became comfortable with answering a cell phone. But, calling me always created problems.
The broken leg really accelerated mom’s decline. While she was allowed to “visit” their apartment, she was not allowed to return there to live. That awareness, along with her almost total blindness left her with little to fill her day and mind, so the slippage continued. Dad spent most of each day sitting in her room, reading the paper, or discussing doctor appointments, but that was causing his world to close in, too.
I’m afraid this is not a post that will end of a burst of optimism. Dealing with aging parents is mostly about facing reality. On several levels my folks were blessed. They had the financial resources to be in an excellent facility. They had family in town who visited at least once a week, sometimes more. Through 63 years of marriage they remained deeply in love and committed to being there through good and bad. Mom and dad were there for me. It was my time to be there for them.
If you haven’t faced this issue yet, you may have it in your future. If you have been through this, then you have experiences I ask you to share with all of us. There are all sorts of questions, problems, and possible solutions I have skimmed over or missed completely. I would very much appreciate your feedback and comments on this subject. It may not be pleasant, but it is real.
By Bob Lowry