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Looking after Mom and Dad (and ourselves)

Be prepared for the complexities of elder care

More people in our area are looking after parents, spouses, life partners, siblings, other relatives, or friends who need help as they age. This stage of life isn’t easy but can have a lot of benefits as we get closer to our folks and find ways to give something back for everything they’ve done for us.

If you and your family are all here in Rochester, you’re way ahead of the game compared to friends or relatives who are geographically separated from those who start developing memory, health, and independence issues. We’re also lucky in having resources at hand for our parents and ourselves. From a range of senior living options to in-home medical services to support for the aging-in-place trend to respite for caregivers, this is one city that doesn’t have trouble with this challenge.

What to watch for

The earlier a family starts dealing with potential needs for elder care, the better. Warning signs include memory glitches; erratic driving; changes in temperament, personality, personal hygiene, eating, and socializing; bruises, falls, and increased need for health care; unpaid bills and money shortages.

What to do

  • Know who your parents’ doctors are and go along to appointments on occasion, to make sure you know what’s really going on.
  • Talk about it. Bring things out in the open, ideally before a crisis occurs. Ask your parents what they want to do if their health starts to fail, they can’t drive, or staying in the family home becomes untenable. Look for a tactful way to ask about finances—how they’re managing money and paying bills—and whether they have a will. You probably should be their health proxy for medical emergencies. Suggest setting up direct debit for mortgage/rent, phone, and electric bills. You may need to be added to a parent’s checking account to be sure those bills get paid.
  • When you can, take a look at how your parents keep track of accounts and insurance policies (medical, home, and car) in case you have to handle those matters. If your parents want to add you to a safe deposit box, be very specific with the bank about your title; a co-signer may not have access after the other person dies.
  • Prepare to play chauffeur if needed or to set up a taxi account. Rochester is a great place to live, but it’s hard to get around for anyone who doesn’t drive. Older people tend to be leery of using the bus system, assuming it even takes them where they need to go.
  • Make the home safer. One of our friends had someone install handrails and replace cracked surfaces on the stairs to the basement at her parents’ house so they could get to the laundry room safely. Others have succeeded in having parents let someone come in to help with anything from meals to medications, bathing and dressing, housework, gardening, and exercise.
  • Cell phones may be all the rage, but it takes a landline to support medical devices and home security systems. Since disasters can knock out wireless systems, that familiar landline could be a lifesaver. Cell phones can also be confusing for anyone with even minor memory or comprehension problems, and it makes great sense to encourage parents to keep that landline.
  • Follow the news. Stay current on the ever-changing scams—which are sometimes the same wolf in a different sheep’s clothing—so you can tactfully educate your parents about them. The older someone is, the more likely they are to trust people who falsely claim to represent a bank, credit card company, or government agency. Find ways to remind them never to give out their Social Security numbers, bank account information, and other personal identity details by phone unless they make the call—and then only to a number they’ve used before safely. Reinforce the fact that messages about out-of-country lottery wins are always scams, as are those ridiculous, but somehow believable to some. These include promises of money from the estates of long-lost relatives or foreign royalty and calls from anyone saying they’re with Microsoft and want to help fix a computer bug.
  • Consider getting an AARP membership just to stay current on everything from health trends to scams directed at the elderly to safety to resources for your parents. If they don’t belong, treat them to a membership.
  • Don’t tell your folks to get one of those emergency alerts for themselves. Ask them to get one—or let you give them one—for your sake. “I know you’re fine, but I’ll feel better if you have one” is a great persuader.
  • Use stories. Talk about a friend of yours or theirs who’s gotten an emergency alert button, started a phone check (calling a friend every morning so someone knows they’re okay), updated a will, downsized from a house to an apartment or senior living community, etc.
  • Network with friends. Lots of Rochesterians are already dealing with these issues and have resources to share or could use shoulders to lean on. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Know your parents’ friends and talk to them on occasion. They don’t want to be treated as spies, but they’ll be plugged into how your folks are doing and will let you know if they’re worried about anything. If your parents don’t live in town, it’s especially important to make the acquaintance of their doctors, neighbors, and friends so you know about it if problems arise and are easy to reach when needed.
  • Think ahead. Use this experience to make arrangements or have conversations with your own kids, siblings, or friends to make it easier when you need help.

It could all be worse. China recently made it a law that children have to take care of their parents, and I just saw something about a pre-Broadway show about a mom who reacts to her children wanting her to move to a nursing home by planning to become a suicide bomber!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer/editor and the co-author of The Who, What and Where of Elder Care: A handy, step-by-step guide to help navigate the maze of caregiving (Lifebridge, 2005). She contributes to the website, wrote a series of articles on elder care for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine, and managed care for her mother for several years.

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