Few people gleefully anticipate the task of caring for an aging parent—but plenty seem to deny that it’s coming. Sooner or later, avoidance can thrust adult children into the caregiver role with a shotgun start. A parent’s slip in the bathroom or a collision caused by a mistake in the driver’s seat can precipitate a deluge of anguished decisions and rapid changes you’re not ready to handle. Suddenly, you could be scrambling to locate account numbers to pay Mom’s bills while she’s in the hospital, tangling with her insurance company to figure out why coverage for an X-ray was denied, and consulting with your brother—who lives three states away—about getting Mom into an assisted-living facility. You grapple with guilt because your mother never wanted to move out of her home, but now her condition leaves little choice. As the drama plays out, you’re also trying to stay afloat at work and look after your other dependents, the kids.The first step toward avoiding such baptism by fire is to acknowledge you’ll most likely take on caregiving responsibilities someday. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, the number of “unpaid family caregivers” is set to reach 37 million by 2050, an 85 percent increase from the year 2000. You can help your parents stay happily independent as long as possible if you start those tough conversations now and do some thorough preparation.
The vast majority of senior citizens want to live out their days in their own homes—and without being a burden on their kids. Planning ahead greatly raises your odds of making it happen.
1. Consider hiring a pro. A knowledgeable, neutral professional can assist from the start, even when your parents are still living at home. Locate an expert through the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers to help navigate everything from finding a companion service for Dad to identifying a mediator to help settle family differences over caregiving choices. “You may think you can handle it yourself, but you can’t—not when you’re so [emotionally] close to the situation,” says Don Terrell of Ellensburg, Wash., who got help from a geriatric care manager later in the process when his family sought a facility for his mom, who has Alzheimer’s disease. According to NAPGCM, an initial assessment runs $300 to $800, and services cost $80 to $200 per hour, depending on where they’re needed.
2. Keep track with technology. Helping your parents remain in their home may be realistic but typically requires at least a few adjustments to keep them comfortable and safe. Savvy families are deploying products like QuietCare, which relies on strategically placed motion sensors, to keep tabs on their elders. Phyllis Baker’s 80-year-old father lives alone outside Detroit, nearly five hours away from her home. But she needs only to check her iPhone to allay worries, she says, like “Has he gotten out of bed? Is he in the bathroom and never came out?” No cameras or microphones are involved, so her dad has privacy, and a secure website updates a status report every two hours. QuietCare calls immediately if anything is out of the ordinary. Inspired by her two sons, marines regularly deployed overseas, Baker is considering another tech boost: webcams for “virtual meals” together.
3. Remove booby traps. The National Association of Home Builders has certified aging-in-place specialists who can consult and make structural changes. Extras that you or a specialist might install, says Meri-K Appy of the Home Safety Council, include antiscald devices for showers and faucets (like H2O Stop, a new product) that protect older skin, which is quick to sustain serious burns; alternatively, set water heaters to “low” or at 120 degrees. Carbon monoxide detectors are recommended since elderly people are sensitive to even low concentrations of the deadly gas. Special smoke detectors with strobe lighting or a vibrate feature can wake them up when conventional devices wouldn’t—new research suggests the latter are set at frequencies that many elderly people can’t hear. Grab bars in the shower and near the toilet are usually a must, but their often ugly appearance isn’t. Moen’s new SecureMount options are an improvement on institutional-looking models, says Appy, and they don’t require tearing down tiles.
4. Visit frequently. The time together matters, plus you’ll have a better sense of whether they’re safe, mentally sound, and in the best living situation, says Alexis Abramson, author of The Caregiver’s Survival Handbook. Keep an eye out for subtle changes: Are the plants watered? Is unopened mail piling up? Do they have bruises suggesting they may have fallen? Enlist your family and your parents’ trusted neighbors to check in.
5. Anticipate expenses. To help maintain your parents’ independence and health, you’ll very likely need to pay for a few services. The national average for a home healthcare aide to assist with hygiene and medication, say, is $19 per hour, according to a MetLife Mature Market Institute analysis. Think Medicare will pay? Not if they need the aide for a chronic condition, says Mary Lynn Pannen, president of NAPGCM. “I dispel this myth all the time.” Adult day care averages $61 per day, according to MetLife. Lisa Midden got financial assistance for her 88-year-old dad through a Florida state Medicaid waiver and a local grant, but he must requalify each year. “Until we learned about these [benefits], everything was coming out of our pocket,” says Midden, whose father lives with her and her husband in Orlando. A few afternoons at adult day care and several hours from a nurse’s aide are covered each week, plus the Middens get 12 weekly hours of “respite care.” Start with your local Area Agency on Aging.