Options for Aging Parents

By Nancy Moffett

With life expectancy in the United States rising, many of us will face the dilemma of how to care for aging parents. Oh course, the ideal is that they stay independent as long as possible; but what signs should you be looking for that mean your parent or parents can no longer be on their own? When they find cooking a chore, when they forget to pay the bills, when they seem exhausted and lonely…these are all signs that it may be time for assisted living.

My widowed mother-in-law moved to a retirement community when she was 81. For 12 years, she enjoyed the amenities and friendships she made there while living in her own apartment. She was active and happy. Gradually, however, she began having difficulty walking, which led to a series of falls and injuries. Her vision was deteriorating, and she became confused about taking her medications. Last year she moved to the assisted living section of the complex, where she has the help she needs to enjoy life again at age 94. My husband and I also have peace of mind knowing she’s well cared for.

On the other hand, my stepdad, with a history of cancer, rejected the idea of assisted living. After several years of deteriorating health, being unable to leave the house and multiple visits to the emergency room because he couldn’t manage on his own, his doctor sent him to a nursing home. By then he was too ill to enjoy the security, friendships and activities he could have had in an assisted living facility. Instead, he spent the last months of his life and much of his savings on nursing home care.

What the Pros Know

“People all age at their own rate,” says Gerry Shier, Manager of Marketing and Sales for The Lutheran Home at Topton. “Even if they’re still fairly young, they may be doing things they’re not up to at home. The concept is to get [into assisted living] while you can still have fun,” he explains.

Patty Graf, Regional Director of Operations and Marketing for Northampton Village, Inc., agrees. “When doing becomes too much for them and their children, when they’re scared of falling, when they’re forgetting things like showering…they would do so much better in an assisted living situation,” she says.

Jennifer Swinsburg, Director of Marketing at The Village at Willow Lane adds, “I recommend it earlier than later. You don’t want to wait until there’s a crisis, and children are forced to make decisions for their parents.” Also, there may be waiting lists that make it harder to find accommodations when the time comes.

The concept of assisted living is fairly new. Many older people still think of these facilities as “going into a home.” There’s a big difference between assisted living and a nursing home. According to SeniorLiving.net,  “assisted living communities are designed to provide residents with assistance with basic ADLs (activities of daily living) such as bathing, grooming, dressing, and more. Some states also allow assisted living to offer medication assistance and/or reminders. Assisted living communities differ from nursing homes in that they don’t offer complex medical services.”

Assisted living residences provide supervision or assistance with activities of daily living; coordination of services by outside health care providers; and monitoring of resident activities to help to ensure their health, safety, and well-being. Assistance may include the administration or supervision of medication, or personal care services provided by a trained staff person…[it is] for people, normally seniors, for whom independent living is no longer appropriate but who do not need the 24-hour medical care provided by a nursing home.”

What You Need to Know

“There are so many facilities in the Lehigh Valley that there’s one for everybody,” Swinsburg says. The internet is a great place to begin your search. Many facilities will send you packets of information that include room layouts, prices and what care and activities are included. After you’ve picked out a few places, the next step is to visit them. “You know what your parents are accustomed to,” Graf says, “and you’ll sense if a facility is somewhere they would feel comfortable.”

Of course, prices and amenities vary, so it’s important to know what your parent’s finances are. Costs can be surprisingly affordable since there will no longer be utility bills, food expenses, taxes and insurance…all the costs associated with living in their own home. Swinsburg also notes that the facility will provide transportation to and from doctor appointments, shopping, outings, etc. Shier explains that Topton is a “continuing care retirement community” with several kinds of living accommodations, ranging from independent living to assisted living to nursing care. If your parent is still in good health and functioning well, this type of community may be a good place to begin your search.

One important question to ask is “What happens if the resident runs out of money?” Facilities have different policies, so it’s important to understand that going in.

How to Start the Conversation

“The time to start looking is before your parent gets to the point where they can’t be involved,” Schier advises. Here’s the tricky part. “Many children are afraid to talk to their parents about this,” Swinsburg says. She advises opening with a question such as “If something would happen, have you thought about where you would go?” Expect to have repeated talks, making sure to take a loving, caring approach that concentrates on their well being.

Next, suggest a “visit” to a facility, avoiding the term “tour,” Swinsburg says. Graf recommends asking for a calendar of activities. Pick one your parent would like. Then bring them in for the activity and arrange a meeting with staff who will take them on a tour. “We’re trained to know what to say,” she explains. “We hit on positive points like, ‘We’re here all the time, and you’ll never have to be afraid again’.” If the parent is still resistant, ask their doctor or clergy for help. “The average age of our residents is 86,” Graf explains. “People that age tend to take advice better from someone they’ve trusted most of their lives than from their own children.”

Another tactic is to arrange for a short stay, perhaps while you’re on vacation. Graf finds that after the second stay, most people decide to move in. There’s definitely an adjustment period after the move, Shier points out. But, in about three weeks, most residents have already become involved in activities and are enjoying being with peers and making new friends. “We make them feel special,” he says.

“Older adults are resilient…they adapt, sometimes better than family members expect,” Graf says. “When all is said and done, you become the happy visitor and we become the caring family.”

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