Caring for an ill or aging parent is a great undertaking that few people plan for or even envision. But a study by MetLife's Mature Market Institute found the number of people taking care of an aging parent has soared in the past 15 years. In fact, the insurance company estimates that nearly 10 million adult children over age 50 are currently caring for an aging parent.
This role reversal can create a unique challenge for families. But experts say it’s important for children to identify any potential health-care problems and needs earlier, and work to get them met before it becomes an even bigger (and costlier) problem.
Many aging parents prefer to stay in their home, and in response, families are turning to home-health care providers to help keep their loved ones safe. Hiring professionals to help with care can ease the strain on the family, but it’s important families remain involved in the care, set expectations and communicate regularly with their parents and caretakers.
Children should assess their parents situation periodically, look for warning signs of bad care and seek support to assist their parents with their changing medical needs.
Jennifer Tucker, vice president of business development for Homewatch CareGivers International, a home care company, offered the following tips for those caring for aging loved ones:
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Tucker: Home care can help aging parents remain independent and in their own homes for longer by providing assistance with daily activities that may become difficult with time, such as transportation to and from doctors appointments, medication reminders, bathing and dressing, light housekeeping and more.
In the long run, relying on the outside help of home care has the potential to reduce the risk of falling in the home, increase adherence to doctor’s orders and improve overall well-being.
Home care can also provide invaluable companionship and improve quality of life by easing the feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom that can affect the elder population
Boomer: What are some warning signs to look for this holiday season and throughout the year that might indicate a parent might need help?
Tucker: Millions of people travel over the holidays to visit their parents or other family members, so it’s a great opportunity to "check in" and look out for changes that may not be apparent from a long distance. As everyone is different, take note of things that look out of the ordinary for your loved one. For example, if you see that your mother, who has always enjoyed preparing nutritious meals, now only has canned goods in her kitchen and lacks fresh produce, you might consider this to be a significant change. Or if your grandfather, who worked as an accountant all his life, is not able to manage his checkbook, this could signal an underlying issue.
You may not notice changes in daily activities from conversations, over the phone or in letters and emails. That’s why it’s important to know some signs to look out for when visiting your loved ones in their homes.
Here are a few of the warning signs and what they may indicate:
Broken or burned appliances in the kitchen (may indicate an inability to cook safely)
Stained carpets or floors (may indicate poor vision or loss of mobility)
Untended plants and pets (may indicate physical frailty or memory problems)
Dents or scratches in the car or garage (may indicate poor vision or inability to drive safely)
Unexplained bruising (may indicate issues with stability, or a recent fall)
Neighbors express concern about your loved one’s unusual behavior (may indicate cognitive decline, poor vision or hearing loss)
Understanding the needs of your loved one allows you to offer targeted assistance where it is truly needed, thus protecting his or her privacy and reassuring them of their independence.
Boomer: What is the best way to approach the conversation with aging parents that they might need some help?
Tucker: Older adults may feel that their independence is being threatened or that their children are trying to take control if an adult child suggests that they might need help. Our "Let’s Talk" pamphlet, which can be downloaded for free from our site, can provide helpful tips for starting the conversation. This pamphlet covers topics like whether to prepare a script, key phrases to use and other considerations for a productive conversation.
Some tips from the guide include:
Use the word "help" cautiously. Oftentimes seniors don’t recognize their own need for assistance or might be offended by the insinuation. Try saying, "I’d love to help you with some chores. I heard of a service that can send a lady to cook lunches and help with housekeeping. What do you think of that idea?"
If your loved one becomes self-protective or cynical, don’t concentrate on "winning the argument." Strive to conclude the conversation gracefully.
Realize that it will take more than one discussion to wrap up all the details.
Boomer: How can family best deal with an aging parent’s decline in hearing or vision loss, memory problems, decline in mobility, insecurity, driving, etc.?
Tucker: The average family caregiver is providing care for their loved ones from a distance, making it difficultto identify issues like these, but remediating small problems in the home may help prevent larger "crisis" scale issues and dramatically improve quality of life.
A family can help an elder adult deal with declines in hearing or vision loss, memory problems, or lack of mobility through various means. Caregivers should first seek the assistance of medical professionals, such as a primary care provider. Knowing the extent of health concerns for an elder adult will allow for appropriate care planning.
You may also engage the help of a home care agency that can do a free memory-screening test, such as the GPCOG (General Practitioner’s Assessment of Cognition). A home health agency that has a fall prevention program developed by physical therapists can perform an in-home safety evaluation and determine if there is a need for assistive devices in the home to improve safety.
Instead of highlighting a loved one’s inabilities, family members should offer solutions that preserve independence and dignity.
To effectively monitor these conditions, family members should commit to on-going and open communication with loved ones about their changing needs, either directly or through a visiting home care provider.
Boomer: What can be done to assist your loved ones with age-related problems?
Tucker: Understanding the needs of your loved one will allow you to offer solutions where they’re needed, without intruding on privacy or limiting independence. This illustration offers a room-by-room guide to red flags that may signal your loved one needs assistance with certain daily activities. It is meant to represent common scenarios.
For example, clutter or piled up laundry in the bedroom and bathroom may indicate that an older adult is having trouble tending to household chores due to limited mobility, low energy or difficulty staying on his or her feet for extended periods of time. An in-home caregiver can help with chores and ensure that the house is kept free of dangerous clutter and fall hazards.
Your loved one might also need help if you notice unpaid bills, traffic violation tickets or unbalanced checkbooks. These may point to potential memory issues. One possible solution would be offering to co-manage an online bank account or bill pay system with your aging loved one. This allows them to feel in control but still allows you to ensure finances are in order.
Untidy rooms, piled laundry and stained carpets can easily be addressed by hiring a cleaning service.
If you’ve noticed that your parents or grandparents have unexplained bruising or difficulty with walking, balance and mobility, this could be a sign that your loved one has fallen, lost the ability to navigate narrow spaces or become unstable on his or her feet. Add grip tape to stairs, replace old, worn carpeting, clear pathways and install grab bars in bathrooms, and sturdy railings on stairs.