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How To Care For Aging Parents

Tips on caring for an aging parent

If your parents are beginning to need your help more and more then I’m sure you are starting to think about how exactly will you and other family caregivers go about caring for your parents as they enter their golden years.

By beginning to prepare for what might come you will make both your lives (you and your parents) much easier.

What Is The Best Way To Take Care Of Aging Parents?

Taking care of aging parents is a multifaceted responsibility that requires a combination of emotional, physical, financial, and medical support.

Here are some general guidelines to consider:

1. Open Communication

Initiate conversations with your parents about their needs, preferences, and concerns. Understand their wishes regarding medical care, living arrangements, and end-of-life decisions.

Meet With Other Family Members – Make A Plan

If there are other family members / caregivers involved – it’s important to have a family meeting to work WITH your parents (if that’s possible) to come up with a plan on what could be done in case of any functional / cognitive decline.

For example: if your parent was unable to care for their home or themselves any longer for whatever reason – what’s the plan?

  • Would they move in with a family member?
  • Would someone move in with them?
  • Would you have to hire a caretaker for the day or 24 hours?
  • Would you need to modify the home (i.e. install a stairlift, modify the bathroom, etc.)?
  • Do they have the financial resources to care for their own needs?
  • Is an assisted living facility appropriate?
  • Is a nursing home something your parent totally opposes?

Knowing the answers to these types of questions beforehand will make life much easier not only for your aging parent(s) but for you and your family as well.

Knowing what you may be able to do will be especially helpful if you live far from your parents and if your parents may end up becoming a financial burden on their adult children.

We have a great article on tips on being a long-distance caregiver.

2. Medical Care

  • Schedule regular medical check-ups.
  • Keep a list of their medications and ensure they are taken as prescribed.
  • Understand their medical conditions and be aware of symptoms that might require immediate attention.

As our parents age, their medical needs often become more complex. Ensuring they receive the best care possible requires vigilance, understanding, and proactive measures.

Here’s a deeper dive into the essential aspects of medical care for aging parents.

Regular Medical Check-ups

  • Importance of Routine: Regular check-ups can detect potential health issues before they become severe. They also provide an opportunity for doctors to assess the overall health of your parents and make necessary adjustments to their care.
  • Specialist Visits: Apart from general physicians, ensure that your parents see specialists relevant to their health conditions, such as cardiologists, endocrinologists, or neurologists.
  • Dental and Vision Care: Oral and eye health are often overlooked but are crucial. Schedule regular dental check-ups and eye exams to prevent and treat issues early.

Medication Management

  • Organized System: Use pill organizers to sort medications for each day of the week. This helps in ensuring that doses aren’t missed or doubled.
  • Stay Updated: Medications can change over time. Regularly review the list of medications with your parents’ healthcare provider to ensure they are still necessary and not interacting adversely with one another.
  • Educate Yourself: Understand the purpose of each medication, its side effects, and any dietary or lifestyle restrictions associated with it.
  • Pharmacy Visits: Build a relationship with a trusted pharmacist who can provide valuable advice and insights on medications and their interactions.

Understanding Medical Conditions

  • Educate and Research: Take the time to learn about your parents’ medical conditions. Reliable medical websites, support groups, and patient education materials provided by doctors can be valuable resources.
  • Symptom Tracking: Maintain a journal to track any new or worsening symptoms. This can be invaluable information for healthcare providers in adjusting treatments or diagnosing new conditions.
  • Emergency Preparedness: Recognize symptoms that require immediate medical attention. Have a plan in place for such situations, including a list of emergency contacts and knowledge of the nearest medical facilities.

Communication with Healthcare Providers

  • Active Participation: Attend medical appointments with your parents whenever possible. This allows you to ask questions, clarify doubts, and be an advocate for your parents’ health.
  • Maintain Records: Keep a comprehensive file of medical records, including test results, hospital discharge summaries, and consultation notes. This can be helpful for reference and if you need to see a new doctor or specialist.

Mental and Emotional Well-being

  • Holistic Care: Remember that mental health is as crucial as physical health. Regularly check in on your parents’ emotional well-being. Consider counseling or therapy if they show signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.
  • Social Engagement: Encourage your parents to engage in social activities, as isolation can lead to mental health decline. This could be through community groups, religious gatherings, or hobbies.

3. Safe Living Environment

  • Consider home modifications to prevent falls, such as installing grab bars and removing tripping hazards.
  • Evaluate if they can live independently or if they need assisted living or a nursing home.
  • Ensure they have emergency contact numbers easily accessible.

If that is something that your parent can do – modifying the environment in their home is the best gift you can give them.

The modifications would depend on what their needs would be – but they could include big and small things like…

  • Installing stair treads on indoor and outdoor steps
  • Decluttering their living spaces for fall prevention
  • Adding a shower bench or chair in the shower stall or making major bathroom modifications
  • Moving a master bedroom downstairs if they live in a two story house
  • Putting in safety knobs on gas stoves or using automatic shut off devices

You can read more about home modifications in our article on How To Help Elderly Parents Stay In Their Home.

4. Emotional Support

  • Spend quality time with them.
  • Encourage social activities and hobbies to keep them engaged and connected.
  • Consider professional counseling or support groups if they’re dealing with grief or depression.

While ensuring their physical well-being is crucial, addressing their emotional needs is equally vital. Here’s an in-depth exploration of how to offer robust emotional support to your aging parents.

The Power of Quality Time

  • Active Listening: When you spend time with your parents, be present. Listen actively to their stories, concerns, and feelings. Sometimes, they might just need a listening ear rather than solutions.
  • Shared Activities: Engage in activities that they love, whether it’s watching a movie, gardening, or simply taking a walk. Shared experiences can foster deeper connections and create lasting memories.
  • Reminiscing: Encourage them to share memories from their past. This not only strengthens your bond but also helps them relive positive experiences and maintain a sense of identity.

Social Engagement and Hobbies

  • Community Involvement: Encourage participation in community events or local senior centers. These platforms offer a variety of activities tailored for the elderly and provide opportunities for social interaction.
  • Pursuing Hobbies: Whether it’s painting, knitting, reading, or any other hobby, encourage your parents to pursue activities they love. Hobbies can provide a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
  • Learning Opportunities: It’s never too late to learn. Encourage your parents to take up new courses or workshops, be it dance classes, pottery, or even digital literacy courses. This keeps their mind active and introduces them to new social circles.

Addressing Grief and Depression

  • Recognizing the Signs: Be vigilant about signs of depression, such as persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, changes in sleep patterns, or feelings of hopelessness. Early recognition can lead to timely intervention.
  • Professional Counseling: If your parents are struggling with intense emotions, especially grief after the loss of a loved one, consider seeking professional counseling. Therapists can provide coping mechanisms and a safe space to express feelings.
  • Support Groups: These are platforms where individuals going through similar experiences come together to share and support each other. Being part of such a group can provide your parents with a sense of belonging and understanding.
  • Open Conversations: Encourage open dialogue about their feelings. Let them know it’s okay to seek help and that mental health is as important as physical health.

5. Financial Planning

  • Discuss their financial situation and understand their sources of income, expenses, and any debts.
  • Consider seeking advice from a financial planner or elder law attorney.
  • Ensure they have essential legal documents in place, such as a will, power of attorney, and advance healthcare directive.

One of the most important lessons I learned after my husband passed away was that everyone should have their legal and financial documents in order at all times.

My husband’s passing was unexpected and not only did I have to deal with the great emotional loss, I also had to contend with all the paperwork that comes afterwards (for example, did you know that the IRS requires a final tax return after someone passes away?)..

Believe me, hunting for passwords and searching for documentation was just an added burden that had to be dealt with. There’s just no need for it.

Since then, I have been telling everyone, that if they truly love their spouses and family, they would not put them through that.

My mother heard my stories and she prepared everything for us (which we are so very grateful for). When she passed away – the process of selling her home and dispersing her assets was much, much easier for us.

I do recommend that you take the first step to prepare by enlisting the help of an elder law attorney – they are specialists at being advocates for older adults and their families / loved ones.

Here is a checklist of the kinds of legal and financial issues you should prepare with your parents as they age.

  • A current, updated will, estate plan, or a trust – I’m always surprised by how many people have not prepared a will or trust. This is by far one of the most important documents you can do for yourself and your loved ones.
  • Power of attorney for financial assets – A Durable Power of Attorney is a document that gives one individual the legal right to appoint another person to act on their behalf in financial affairs.
  • Living will – This advises others on what your wishes are in cases of a medical emergency. Also called a Health Care Proxy, Healthcare Power of Attorney, or Living Will, a Durable Medical Power Of Attorney is a type of advance directive that designates a person to make medical decisions for you if you are not able to do so.
  • House deeds – My mother owned a home and my brother was on the deed of her home. It’s not absolutely necessary that you put someone else on your deed but it certainly made the process of selling her home after her passing very easy. Of course – your individual family dynamics will have to be taken into account when making a decision such as this.
  • Financial accounts – My mother also had my brother on all her financial accounts (checking, saving, etc.) Again, closing these types of accounts after she passed away was very easy because of this. There are other ways these issues can be handled – I would recommend to discuss these with an elder law attorney.

For more information about the issue of legal documents and advance directives – read our article title Legal Checklist For Aging Parents.

It is a difficult conversation to have with your parents, I understand.

But having gone through my husband’s passing without most of these and then through my mother’s passing, I can honestly tell you that it’s much, much easier when these issues are taken care of beforehand.

TIP: A book like Peace of Mind Planner can help you easily compile this information so you can store it in one place.

6. Assessing Your Parents’ Current And Future Needs

More than likely, your older parents will not be aware of or admit to problems that they may be having. If they are honest with you – then you are very fortunate.

Read Caring For Elderly Parents In Your Home

Otherwise – you will have to use your observational (and detective) skills to help you (and them) make some difficult decisions as to how long and whether or not they can continue living in their own home.

You will want to look at the following areas:

  • Mobility issues – are they having any problems walking or standing? Is their balance poor or fair? Have they fallen more than once?
  • Cognitive issues – everyone forgets things now and then but if you notice that your parent(s) is forgetting many things, simple things then they may need more help than they know. Some common cognitive problems can show up as…
    • forgetting to take medications or taking the wrong ones
    • missing important appointments and / or events
    • leaving the oven or stove on
    • forgetting to lock the doors and windows at night
    • using poor judgement such as falling for a scammer on the phone
    • difficulty with problem solving / inductive reasoning
    • poor judgement in financial decisions
    • difficulty with simple math (especially noticeable if they were always good at math)
    • word finding problems
  • Problems with hygiene and dressing – your parents may need help if you notice that they are not showering/bathing or brushing their teeth regularly. If you notice they are wearing the same clothes for several days – or they are not brushing their hair. The problem may be that they are declining cognitively or they are having some physical problems to perform these tasks.
  • Issues with meals and eating – check the refrigerator and pantry in your parents’ home. If you notice that they are bare or that the food there is past expiration or has gone bad – then it’s time to take over the task of purchasing and preparing meals for your aging parents.
  • Medical care – are they living with chronic conditions? Have they been diagnosed with alzheimer’s disease or dementia? Any health issues that can be “managed” but not “cured” have the potential to get worse and impede your parents’ abilities to continue living on their own.
  • Emergency Situation – are your parents able to handle an emergency situation? A fire in the home? An oncoming hurricane or bad storm?

Family members can certainly help with all or some of these issues or you can hire a home care agency to provide these services. I recommend consulting with a geriatric care manager who can help you make these decisions. Their expertise in elder care can be priceless.

If there are none in your immediate area you can also look for a geriatric social worker.

What To Do To Prepare For These Situations?

Problems with mobility – what you need to do will depend on the problem(s) your parent is having. If they are in need of using a cane or a walker or a wheelchair then the environment they live in will need to be modified to accommodate for whatever tool they will be using.

Need to use a cane? – I would recommend removing any lace cut rubber mats that many homeowners have by their front and back doors. (The tip of the cane can easily get stuck in these).

Need to use a walker? Walkers require a little coordination and space to be used safely. I would recommend to make sure that the living areas that your parent will be walking through with their walker be cleared of clutter.

Also, measure the width of the walker to make sure that it can fit safely through a doorway, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, etc.

Need to use a wheelchair? For safe wheelchair access, doorways and hallways need to be at least 32 inches wide to accommodate a wheelchair.

Also, check the width of the bathroom as well to make sure that once they are in the bathroom, that they can maneuver back out. You may also want to look into portable wheelchair ramps.

Cognitive decline – this is probably the most difficult issue to deal with simply because (in my experience) most seniors do not admit or are simply unaware of it.

It’s usually up to the family members and/or caregivers to identify that there are some issues with memory, reasoning and judgement.

The best advice I can give you is…

Problems with hygiene and dressing – any problems with self care / personal care tasks would normally be due to physical and/or cognitive issues.

If there hasn’t been an ADL (Activities of Daily Living) Assessment by an Occupational Therapist, then I would recommend that you get that. Speak to your parents’ physician about a referral for that.

This ADL assessment will identify the exact problems your parent may be having (it could be a visual perceptual problem, or a memory problem, or some type of physical problem)

With this information in hand – you will then know if your parent needs some tools to help them with bathing and dressing or if they will need hands on help from someone.

The type of tools they could use could include shower chairs or benches, grab bars, long handled brushes to bath with, grabber tools to help with dressing, large grip eating utensils, non slip tableware – there’s many more.

You can check out some of the ones available on Amazon.

Problems with making meals and eating – my mother was an amazing cook. I loved her food and, luckily, she was able to prepare meals until just two days before she died. But your parent may not be like that.

If you notice that your parent is eating frozen meals or ready made food (essentially avoiding cooking) – talk to them and see if you can identify what the problem may be.

You may notice that the food in their pantry and/or refrigerator is out of date or spoiled and your parent isn’t concerned about this – then there may be some issues with their reasoning and judgement (a cognitive issue).

It could be that they are too tired or not interested or too afraid to cook. The solution could be using some adaptive equipment or some proper medication. A conversation with their physician would be warranted.

Again, an assessment by an Occupational Therapist can help you with this issue.

But whatever the cause is – if it’s evident that help is needed then a plan needs to be made (hopefully with your parents permission) to provide the type of help that may be needed. 

It could be having meals delivered through a service such as Silver Cuisine (meals geared especially to seniors dietary needs), Blue Apron or Meals on Wheels (also Mom’s Meals delivers pureed food to seniors who have swallowing problems or dysphagia). 

Or, having a family member or hiring home health aides to come in and do the grocery shopping and prepare meals for your elderly parent.

7. Take Care of Yourself

  • Caregiving can be emotionally and physically draining. Ensure you’re also taking care of your own health and well-being.
  • Consider respite care or seeking help from other family members to share caregiving responsibilities.
  • Join a caregiver support group to connect with others in similar situations.

Here’s a deeper exploration of the importance of self-care for caregivers and practical ways to achieve it.

Recognizing the Challenges of Caregiving

  • Emotional Toll: Watching a loved one age and possibly decline in health can be emotionally taxing. Feelings of sadness, guilt, or even resentment are natural and valid.
  • Physical Strain: The physical demands, whether it’s assisting with mobility, managing household chores, or attending medical appointments, can be exhausting.
  • Time Management: Juggling caregiving responsibilities with personal and professional commitments can be overwhelming.

Prioritizing Your Health and Well-being

  • Regular Check-ups: Just as you ensure regular medical check-ups for your parents, ensure you’re doing the same for yourself. Address any health concerns promptly.
  • Mental Health: Recognize and address signs of caregiver burnout, such as chronic fatigue, irritability, or feelings of hopelessness. Consider therapy or counseling to navigate these feelings.
  • Physical Activity: Engage in regular exercise, even if it’s just a daily walk. Physical activity can alleviate stress and boost mood.
  • Balanced Diet: Ensure you’re consuming a nutritious diet. Proper nutrition can provide the energy and resilience needed for caregiving tasks.

Seeking Support and Sharing Responsibilities

  • Respite Care: This service offers temporary relief for primary caregivers, allowing you to take a break. Whether it’s for a few hours or a few days, use this time to rest and rejuvenate.
  • Family and Friends: Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Delegate tasks, whether it’s grocery shopping, accompanying your parent to a doctor’s appointment, or simply spending time with them.
  • Professional Help: If the caregiving demands become too overwhelming, consider hiring professional caregivers or exploring assisted living options for your parents.

Connecting with Fellow Caregivers

  • Support Groups: Joining a caregiver support group can be immensely beneficial. It provides a platform to share experiences, seek advice, and find solace in knowing you’re not alone.
  • Online Communities: There are numerous online forums and communities dedicated to caregivers. These platforms can offer resources, advice, and a sense of community.
  • Educational Workshops: Attend workshops or seminars tailored for caregivers. They can provide valuable insights, techniques, and resources to make the caregiving journey smoother.

8. Professional Assitance

  • Consider hiring a geriatric care manager to assess your parents’ needs and coordinate care.
  • Utilize home care services if needed, such as home health aides, meal delivery, or transportation services.

Asking for help is something that most caregivers and family members neglect to do. It’s understandable, most people don’t tend to ask for help in many situations.

But – I have gone through caretaking my parents and the loss of my husband and I have learned that if I had to go through all of that without the help of my family and friends – well – let’s just say it would have been much, much more difficult.

The truth is most people want to help – they just don’t know how.

So, begin asking your friends and family for a little help now and then. It could be helping to get some groceries or staying with your parent while you go out to the movies or helping you to make modifications in the home.

Whatever it is that you may need – don’t be shy. Caregiver burnout is very real. We are all in this together – as we should be.

Also, look into what home health care services cost and what’s available in your area. It’s important to have this information in your “care plan” just in case it’s needed.

9. Stay Active

  • Encourage physical activity, as appropriate for their health condition, to maintain mobility and strength.
  • Consider activities like walking, gentle yoga, or tai chi.

The Importance of Staying Active

  • Physical Benefits: Regular activity strengthens muscles, improves balance, and enhances cardiovascular health. This can reduce the risk of falls, heart diseases, and other age-related ailments.
  • Mental and Emotional Perks: Physical activity releases endorphins, the body’s natural mood elevators. This can combat feelings of depression and boost overall mood.
  • Social Interaction: Group activities provide an opportunity for social interaction, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Tailoring Activities to Health Conditions

  • Consultation with Healthcare Providers: Before starting any exercise regimen, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare provider. They can offer guidance on what activities are safe and beneficial based on the individual’s health condition.
  • Adaptive Exercises: For those with mobility issues or chronic conditions, exercises can be adapted to be performed seated or with the support of assistive devices.

Popular Activities for the Elderly

  • Walking: One of the simplest and most effective forms of exercise. Whether it’s a stroll in the park, walking in a mall, or just around the neighborhood, walking improves cardiovascular health and muscle tone.
  • Gentle Yoga: Yoga offers both physical and mental benefits. Gentle yoga poses can improve flexibility, balance, and strength. Additionally, the meditative aspect of yoga can provide mental clarity and relaxation.
  • Tai Chi: Often referred to as “meditation in motion,” tai chi is a series of slow, flowing movements that improve balance, coordination, and relaxation. It’s particularly beneficial for the elderly as it’s low impact and can be adapted for various fitness levels.
  • Water Aerobics: For those with joint issues or arthritis, water aerobics can be an excellent choice. The buoyancy of water reduces stress on joints while providing resistance for muscle strengthening.
  • Dance: Whether it’s ballroom dancing, line dancing, or even simple dance-based aerobics, dancing is a fun way to stay active. It also offers cognitive benefits as one remembers dance steps and sequences.

Encouraging Consistency and Routine

  • Set a Schedule: Having a regular schedule can make exercise a part of daily routine. This ensures consistency and makes it easier to stick to the regimen.
  • Set Realistic Goals: Start with short durations and gradually increase as endurance builds. Celebrate small milestones to keep motivation high.
  • Engage in Group Activities: Joining group classes or activities can provide a sense of community and accountability. It’s also an opportunity to socialize and make new friends.

10. Nutrition

  • Ensure they have a balanced diet.
  • Monitor for signs of malnutrition or dehydration.

Here’s an in-depth exploration of the significance of nutrition for aging parents and how to ensure they receive the nutrients they need.

The Importance of a Balanced Diet

  • Supporting Overall Health: A well-balanced diet provides the essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients required to support bodily functions, maintain muscle mass, and boost the immune system.
  • Managing Chronic Conditions: Proper nutrition can help manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis. For instance, a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D can support bone health.
  • Cognitive Health: Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and certain vitamins can support brain health and potentially slow cognitive decline.

Components of a Balanced Diet

  • Proteins: Essential for muscle maintenance and repair. Sources include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, and tofu.
  • Carbohydrates: Provide energy. Opt for whole grains like oats, brown rice, and quinoa over refined grains.
  • Fats: Choose healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. Limit saturated and trans fats.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Ensure a variety of fruits and vegetables to provide essential vitamins and minerals. Consider supplements if recommended by a healthcare provider.
  • Hydration: Water is crucial for various bodily functions. Encourage regular fluid intake, including water, herbal teas, and hydrating foods like cucumbers and watermelon.

Monitoring for Signs of Malnutrition or Dehydration

  • Physical Indicators: Unexplained weight loss, brittle nails, dry skin, and frequent illnesses can be signs of malnutrition. Dark urine, dry mouth, and fatigue might indicate dehydration.
  • Behavioral Signs: Changes in appetite, difficulty swallowing, or a lack of interest in food can be concerning. Similarly, confusion or irritability can sometimes be linked to dehydration.
  • Regular Check-ups: Regular medical check-ups can help monitor nutritional status. Blood tests can reveal deficiencies or imbalances that might not be evident through observation alone.

Addressing Challenges to Proper Nutrition

  • Dental Issues: Dental problems or ill-fitting dentures can make eating painful. Regular dental check-ups can help address these issues.
  • Medications: Some medications can affect appetite or nutrient absorption. Discuss potential side effects with a healthcare provider and adjust diets accordingly.
  • Limited Mobility: If mobility issues prevent your parents from shopping or cooking, consider meal delivery services, grocery delivery, or enlisting the help of family members or caregivers.

Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits

  • Shared Meals: Eating together can make mealtime more enjoyable and encourage better eating habits. It’s also an opportunity to monitor their food intake.
  • Adaptable Recipes: Adapt favorite recipes to be more nutritious, such as using whole grains or adding more vegetables.
  • Nutritional Education: Educate your parents about the benefits of certain foods and the importance of a balanced diet. Knowledge can be a powerful motivator.

6. Let Your Employer Know You Are Caring For Your Parent

Your schedule may end up being severely interrupted if you become a primary caregiver for your parent(s). You may have to take your parent to a doctor’s appointment, rush over for an emergency, etc.

This will most likely interfere with your job and your employer will notice. Instead of hoping that they won’t notice – let them in on what is happening.

Hopefully, you have an employer who can work with you and be flexible as your duties change and as your parent continues to age. But you won’t know that until you have the conversation with them.

If the scenario is that you are forced to leave your job to care for your parents, then you need to be prepared for that as well.

Your state may provide unemployment benefits if you quit to care for your parent.  You can check with your human resources department for that information.

You can also research that information for your specific state by clicking here.

Remember, every individual and family is unique, so it’s essential to tailor these suggestions to your parents’ specific needs and circumstances.

It’s also a good idea to consult with professionals, such as doctors, therapists, and social workers, to get guidance tailored to your situation.

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