Caring for an Aging Parent:
What to do if they can't meet their own needs
By Lisa M. Petsche
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If you have a parent who lives alone, you may be concerned that they are no longer able to look after all of their day-to-day needs.
Typical indictors include changes in grooming, hygiene, nutrition, housekeeping, financial management, medication compliance, mobility, energy level and mental status.
Here are some ways to help, depending on your parent's situation:
Arrange for a medical check-up and accompany your parent. Lethargy, forgetfulness and confusion could be caused by infection, dehydration or depression. Request a medication review by the family doctor or pharmacist, since side effects or drug interactions may be the source of difficulties.
If nutrition is an issue, arrange a dental appointment to have your parent's teeth or dentures checked; set up a schedule to take them grocery shopping; stock the freezer with heat-and-serve foods; have them over for dinner; and arrange for nutritional supplements if necessary.
If vision is a problem, ask the doctor for a referral to an ophthalmologist. If nothing can be done to improve your parent's vision, get them a magnifier for reading small print, and other adaptive items such as a large-keypad telephone and a clock with oversized numbers.
If falls are a concern, perform a safety assessment to identify potential home hazards and do what you can to rectify them.
If financial management is an issue, arrange for direct deposit of pension checks and automatic bill payment from your parent's bank account. Have a lawyer assist your parent in assigning power of attorney for property to one or more people they trust.
Investigate available resources in your parent's community that may be of help. Information can be obtained from the local office on aging.
When Help is Refused
What if your parent clearly needs help but won't accept it?
The approach to take depends on your parent's personality and the nature of your relationship, but here are some general guidelines:
- Raise concerns gently. Use "I" statements - for example, "I notice that..." or, "I'm worried that...." Provide concrete examples.
- Emphasize your parent's abilities and how these can be supported. Stress that your aim is to help them remain at home and maximize their independence.
- Organize a family meeting if your parent denies problems.
- Gently probe to learn the reasoning behind your parent's refusal of help. Listen and respect their point of view. Be attuned to underlying feelings and demonstrate empathy.
- Share brochures or information from the Internet. Highlight services or equipment that are free or subsidized.
- Focus initially on the least intrusive options, such as setting up an emergency response system or obtaining medical equipment.
- Offer to pay, or contribute to, the cost of medical equipment, community programs or home services if your parent has limited income.
- If your parent is mentally capable, it's important to recognize that they have the right to put themselves at risk. You may need to agree to disagree about what's best for them.
While it can have its rewards, caring for an aging parent involves physical, psychological, emotional and financial demands.
The following are some strategies to help keep stress manageable:
- Look after your health: eat nutritious meals, get adequate rest, exercise and get regular medical checkups.
- Find something relaxing you can do every day.
- Stay connected to the important people in your life.
- Educate yourself about any medical diagnoses your parent may have, and share the information with the rest of the family, to help you all understand.
- Take things one day at a time so you don't get overwhelmed.
- Give yourself permission to feel all of the emotions that surface, including frustration and resentment.
- Don't try to handle things alone. Ask other family members to help and be specific about what is needed.
- Join a caregiver support group in your community or on the Internet.
Never forget that you can only take good care of your parent if you take good care of yourself.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.