Your Quick-Start Guide to Helping Elderly Relatives:
Sometimes it creeps up on us slowly. Sometimes there’s a crisis – one parent’s death, or a serious diagnosis – that makes it clear: Our parents aren’t getting any younger. And as they age, they may need more help from their adult children in taking care of themselves. Managing life in the sandwich generation – when you’re caring for both your parents and you own children – can be challenging at best, and maddening at worst. And just plain exhausting in either situation.
I got to go through this process in my 20s, when my 70-something-year-old father was dying from cancer. Thankfully, my own mama’s health is still solid. But I’ve seen more than my share of other relatives, neighbors, and good friends struggle to figure out what to do when a parent falls ill. Especially when (as was the case with my father’s final illness) they themselves live several states away. And are caught up in their own lives, jobs, and raising their own kids.
If any of this sounds familiar, you need this quick-start guide on helping your elderly relatives live as well as possible, for as long as possible.
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Tips for Navigating Life In The Sandwich Generation
1. Are their affairs in order?
The ideal time to start discussing your parents’ future plans is before you need to. That is, when they are still 100% well, both in mind and in body. As I know from watching others go through it, when affairs aren’t in order, the only thing worse than trying to work with a parent whose health is failing is having them pass without getting their affairs squared away.
So if you don’t already know the answers to these questions, ask your parent(s) if they’ve met with an estate attorney, and drawn up a will. Ask them what their wishes are, should become physically or mentally incapacitated. Discuss whether they have (or would consider preparing) such documents as a living will. Make sure that someone knows where copies of all these documents are – at least, the executor of their estate and/or their lawyer should have copies. (Who is that person, by the way, and how do you reach them?)
When they’re still fully functional is also the time to discuss who should have things like a healthcare power of attorney or financial power of attorney for them, in the event they should become incapacitated. Equally important (though by no means easy), who will determine that it’s time for one of these to go into effect? And how will that person determine that the power(s) of attorney need to go into effect?
Finally, while your parents are still healthy and mentally sound, it’s a good idea to make sure that you know the names and contact information for their doctors, their religious leaders, and close friends, especially if you live somewhere else. Also be sure that your parents have given their written permission to all medical providers for you to discuss your parents’ health with them. These people may be able to alert you to any alarming or sudden changes they notice in your parents’ demeanor, abilities, or behavior.
These are NOT fun things to talk about, I know. But as someone who’s watched families wrestle with this from the outside, it is SO much easier to be proactive before issues arise, than to try to work through these things while your parents’ health is faltering.
2. Can they stay at home?
If your parents are eager to remain in the home they love, where they feel safe, it’s up to you to help them do this for as long as possible. Talk to them, and make it clear that you’ll do everything in your power to fulfill their wishes. But at the same time, you need to be transparent about the fact that if they ever become a danger to themselves or others, it will be time to consider alternatives.
When trying to help your parents stay in their own home, think about what things you can do to help make living there easier for them, such as:
- Lowering shelves in the living room
- Getting a larger remote for the TV
- Installing a handicap ramp at the front of the house, to make steps less of an issue
- Adding a first-floor bath and/or bedroom
- Raising their bed and toilet seats, and replacing their favorite chair with a lift-assist one
- Installing grab bars in showers/tubs and around toilets
- Helping them arrange for a cleaning service and handyman-on-call to help with basic maintenance, or scheduling regular times to visit and take care of their small house projects
- Going through their home with them to help identify possible hazards – for example, small throw rugs that could be slipping hazards to someone using a cane
Even though they still may be sharp as tacks mentally, physically your parents may need help with these aspects of day-to-day living.
3. Do they need more help?
If their physical abilities have declined dramatically, or if their memory and cognitive function are suffering, you may need to talk to them gently about surrendering some of their independence. This might not mean full-time care in a retirement home – but it might mean a higher level of in-home care from outside help. For example,
- Might they need someone to come help not just with the weekly cleaning, but also with laundry and food prep?
- Can they manage errands on their own? Or is it time to give up driving? Can someone take them on errands, such as shopping and doctor’s appointments?
- Are there senior public transportation services (e.g., on-demand senior buses) in their area that they can use? Or is there a person or service who can help with things like delivering groceries?
- Or do they have access to a program such as Meals-On-Wheels?
- Can they still dress themselves, bathe themselves, and get themselves to the toilet at night? Might some overnight help from an in-home care service be useful?
- Do they have a chronic health condition that requires ongoing medical care? Is it possible to arrange regular visits from a visiting nurse?
4. Should they live with you?
If your parents can no longer live completely on their own at home, but moving to a step-up retirement community assisted-living facility is not an option, you might consider welcoming them into your own home.
True, you may not have lived with them full-time since you were a teenager. But the circumstances may be right, for them and for you, to join forces and merge households – whether that means moving back into your childhood home with your own family in tow, or adding an in-law apartment onto your own residence. Compared to the cost of assisted-living care, even such an extensive building project as this will be quite reasonable, and the proceeds of selling your parents’ home can fund the project.
RELATED: How To Build A Home That Will Last
Your spouse will need to be on board with this plan. And depending on your children’s ages and your parents’ condition, you may need to call upon your kids for help in caring for their grandparents, too. But for all the challenges of having an older parent move in with your family, the benefits are huge for everyone.
And they go far beyond the financial benefits, compared to assisted-living costs. Having a grandparent around the house can be a huge plus for your kids. Having another generation in the household can lead to a calmer home, and your kids will no doubt love the opportunity to spend so much time with their grandparents. At the same time, though, the dynamic of family life will inevitably change, so you need to be ready for this.
5. Do they need full-time care?
Sometimes, for whatever reason, we cannot care for our parents to the extent that they need. There is no shame in realizing you’ve reached this point, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. There simply comes a time in some families where, for the benefit of your parents’ health and well-being (as well as your own), they may need more specialized full-time residential care.
If this comes to pass, it’s important to make the decision of care a joint one as much as possible. Your parents will most likely need to spend a significant portion of their savings to cover their care, which makes it only right that they have some say in where they end up. Keep dialogue open at all times, and never make a decision without them. This can lead to anxiety, stress, and unnecessary mental health problems.
Your parents are the people who made you who you are. By keeping the lines of communication open, you can help to make their twilight years as comfortable and rich for all of you – them, you, and your children – as possible.
Have you had any firsthand experience in caring for older parents or other older relatives? Please let us know your tips for living life in the sandwich generation!
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