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A guide to caring for aging parents and seniors

Caregiving for an older adult in your life marks one of the most significant transitions in life—a change in roles. Once, you were the one who was on the receiving end of decisions about everything from meals, transportation, recreational activities, personal safety, medical care, and finances..

With the assumption of responsibility for elderly care, that lifelong dynamic shifts, and with that shift comes a wave of changes, both anticipated and unanticipated.

Take care of your needs so you can take care of theirs

Caring for seniors and aging parents can be a privilege. Many adults of so-called “sandwich generation” age lose parents or older relatives at younger ages and may never have the opportunity to step over the threshold into caregiving.

But for those who do, one of the most surprising things about elderly care is the constant stress and tension of being pulled in several directions at once. Between full-time work, raising or caring for children, maintaining healthy relationships with a partner and friends, and also taking care of Mom or Dad, the circumstances and pressures of life can rapidly become overwhelming.

For caregivers who need additional resources, comprehensive books on elderly care are available.

Pre-flight airplane safety lectures about oxygen masks can serve as a guiding light for caregivers: Put your own mask on first. You cannot provide elderly care if you have no resources yourself. Never hesitate to take a few quiet moments alone to recharge, to ask for help, or to find additional backup when you need it.

For caregivers who need additional resources, comprehensive books on elderly care are available. In addition, professional geriatric care managers are trained in assessment, advocacy, planning, and family caregiver coaching to help navigate the unfamiliar, sometimes tempestuous waters of providing care for those who once cared for you.

First, take stock of their elderly care needs

Every caregiving situation is unique. Individual differences in emotional, cognitive, and physical abilities will determine what is required in your own situation when you step into the role of caring for aging parents.

Some older adults require only minimal assistance, such as arranging safe transportation to social and medical appointments after they agree to give up the car keys; others may need help with just about all of their activities of daily living (ADLs) to remain independent and safe.

eating dressing bathing walking graphic

Basic ADLs include:

  • Eating

  • Dressing

  • Bathing

  • Continence/toileting and personal hygiene (including getting on and off the toilet independently)

  • Transfers (being able to and from a bed or a chair without assistance)

  • Walking

Instrumental ADLs, which are required for independent living, include:

  • Preparing meals

  • Managing money

  • Performing housework

  • Using a telephone

Health care providers routinely assess older adults’ abilities to complete ADLs. An example of one such assessment may be found here. The instrument can help you to begin to determine how much and what types of additional assistance may be required as you begin to scope out your family’s individual elderly care plan

Caring for your own physical needs

While professional caregivers and aides are trained in safe, healthy ways of caring for seniors, studies have repeatedly confirmed the physical toll of caring on family caregivers can be steep. So, don’t neglect your own preventive health care appointments while caring for aging parents. And if you’re feeling less than 100%, don’t ignore your own symptoms. You can’t help anybody if you’re not well yourself.

The most common physical health risks associated with what’s known as Caregiver Stress Syndrome are:

  • Diabetes

  • Depression

  • Compromised immune system

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart disease

  • Poor sleep and sleep deprivation

  • Weight gain

  • Back problems and strains from lifting

  • Unhealthy stress releasers like smoking and binge drinking

Lift-related back strain is a particular concern because back injuries are chronic—they don’t go away. If you know ahead of time that caring for seniors in your life will require heavy lifting and transfers, be sure to understand safe ways of moving, lifting, and transferring them.

Lift-related back strain is a particular concern because back injuries are chronic

Likewise, if you find the burden of caregiving is causing you to reach for comfort foods or leading you to stress-eat in unhealthful ways, look for resources through your community or workplace that can help you manage your own health and wellness as you assume the responsibility of caring for aging parents.

If you’re still employed, don’t forget your own Human Resources office: many employers employee assistance programs and discounts and referrals to local health centers, nutritional counseling, and other programs to help lighten the load.

Tending to emotional needs

In addition to demands on time and health/physical challenges, elderly care can extract a very real emotional toll on caregivers. It’s important to be vigilant and aware of the signs and symptoms of psychological caregiver stress and caregiver burnout in order to engage in appropriate self-care, which from time to time may include finding assistance and respite resources for those caring for seniors.

Without a proactive plan for managing the stress of caring for aging parents, signs and symptoms of an increasing emotional toll may include:

Signs and symptoms of increasing emotional needs

Most importantly, it’s critical to remember nobody can do it all. Understanding your own limits and triggers can help to cope with the stress of caregiving. Journaling about your feelings has been shown to be an effective way of reducing stress and improving sleep, along with a host of other benefits. (If you’ve never kept a journal before, don’t worry; it isn’t homework, nobody ever needs to read it but you, and it doesn’t even have to be written. You can speak your entries into an app if that’s more comfortable and natural for you. To get you started, find a list of ten prompts at Daily Caring.)

Helping your aging parents meet their emotional needs

In the seemingly endless lists of to-dos that caregivers assume when they take on the responsibility of caring for aging parents, practical issues like managing medical appointments, ensuring physical safety, and coordinating decision-making about such issues as finances and living arrangements may consume the lion’s share of a caregiver’s attention. But quality of life also includes emotional needs—an integral component of elderly care.

Today’s families have access to technological options available for seniors who are aging in place that can lessen some sources of friction.

Security and Autonomy: Especially in older adults with health conditions that predispose them to falls, disorientation, or other such risks, concerns about security and safety when they remain at home are paramount. At the same time, caregivers often face resistance to “too much interference,” which can be perceived by an aging parent as “treating me like a child.” Smart home technologies and standalone products such as video doorbells, which allow seniors to see who is on the front porch before answering, can help to reduce nervousness about being alone at home and offer a sense of empowerment and self-sufficiency. At the same time, caregiver-connected apps with GPS, emergency alert systems and automatic fall detection with all work together, helping caregivers caring for seniors more peace of mind while offering Mom more freedom to come, go, and stay where she wants, when she wants.

Connection and Community: Through computers, smartphones, tablets, apps, and even smart TVs, seniors have more ways today than ever before to get in touch and remain in touch with friends and family wherever they are. Recognizing the potential for technology to bridge the gap and “empower older adults to live successful, independent, connected lives,” AARP joined with the Older Adults Technology Services program to teach seniors to use computers and “age with attitude.”

Financial needs to consider when caring for elderly parents

The cost of caring for seniors can add stress to an already demanding situation. A website administered through the nonprofit National Council on Aging (NCOA) offers an opportunity to discover whether your senior is eligible for financial assistance. More than 2,500 federal, state, and/or private benefit programs are centralized in this database. Simply navigate to BenefitsCheckup and answer a series of questions to determine whether your parent or senior may be eligible for financial assistance to help cover the costs of:

Medications housing transportation
  • Medications

  • Health care

  • Income assistance

  • Food and nutrition

  • Housing and utilities

  • Tax relief

  • Transportation

  • Respite care assistance for you, the caretaker

  • More (visit the link and put in your ZIP code to start checking out all the possibilities

Elderly care, safety, and peace of mind

Caring for seniors, whether you do so in your own home or while your parent ages in place, carries with it a host of physical and emotional stresses. One of the heavier burdens can be a nagging sense of doubt: What if something goes wrong when I’m not there?

The emergence of the internet of things, connected caregiver apps, ubiquitous cellular communications, and 24/7 connectivity over the past few decades has empowered caregivers to let go of minute-to-minute worries.

Instead, remote monitoring and other connected services can help keep an eye on Mom, even when nobody is at home with her. From instant-response one-touch emergency devices to fall detection to caregiver GPS location tracking that shows Mom’s location on the caregiver’s own smartphone and more, intelligent device design and smart product engineering is putting the power of information technology to work for families caring for seniors.

You are not alone

The National Care Planning Council offers a comprehensive caregivers’ handbook covering such issues as common problems in caregiving, self-care strategies for caregivers, legal and financial affairs, and signs it may be time to stop caregiving and consider residential care. The trusted advisors at A Place for Mom can also help you create a senior care plan with their free expert guidance.

The most important message about caregiving is this: Just as parenting takes a village, so does caring for aging parents. As more Americans reach the age of retirement and require elderly care in the years and decades to come, the generations who have inherited the technologies invented by the Boomer generation will increasingly lean on those innovations to help them (and us) achieve the goal of physically safe, emotionally healthy caregiving.

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