If you look at it demographically, we are living longer than ever. During the last century, in places with the longest life expectancies, the average lifespan has grown by more than two years every decade. That’s about six hours a day according to a Duke University demographer.
And as we live longer, more of us will face difficult conversations with aging parents about elder care. In so doing, reflect on what it will be like when you inevitably reach that same place. When is it time to think about a nursing home or an assisted-living community? You know, we had a plan. Here was our plan: No one in our family was ever going to get old. No one was going to get frail. Until one day, my dad did. Like most families we were in reaction mode and scrambling to put together a plan for his care.
I know I am not alone in being an adult daughter…the segment of our population most often tasked with helping mom or dad as they become more frail and elderly. Not only are you their child, you are also their advocate. So how do you go about starting that conversation about moving to an assisted living or retirement home before there is a crisis? When is the right time? How do you do it without seeming bossy to your parents? If you have siblings, what is their role? Are you nearby each other or spread out across the country? It makes a difference how you are perceived as the one spearheading this discussion. Many families find they are brought closer together when they have a common goal: their parent’s health and safety. Yet many are torn apart when siblings don’t agree.
You may be seen as pushy or insensitive. But you may also be the one who offers daily assistance to your parent(s). You may be the one who does the most, and is appreciated the least. Your siblings, if they are not local or involved, may not realize the extent that you are sacrificing your time and energy taking care of them and they may not realize just how far mom or dad has slipped mentally or physically. Sometimes home care is tried. We determined it took six to eight people to provide 24/7 care for our dad. Between the caregivers, the family and the more than generous, helpful neighbors, that’s a lot of time and energy and expense. In an assisted living community, our dad was stimulated not with a 24-7 caregiver, but with activities that really helped him to have good quality of life.
By listening to the many families who come to me seeking senior care of some sort, whether it is a maintenance free apartment or patio home, or more supported independent or assisted living, even memory care, I have come to some conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. Your parent is a person with a long history and a rich life. They have undoubtedly faced many losses. I believe in bringing the elder into all decisions as you can, because they have so many losses through age. Being faced with moving out of a long time home invokes that terrible sense of loss. If you can be empathetic, put yourself in their shoes. Try to understand what it is like and acknowledge their fears.
And there's this tremendous sense of loss because, you're losing your house. And I said this to my mom when we were talking about her moving from Michigan to Colorado to live in a retirement community near me. You know what I figured out? She had never been away to college. She'd never lived in a dorm or a sorority. She lived in the same house for 50 years. People just didn’t move around then like we do today. I've lived in dorms. I've lived in group houses. I’ve moved 7 times since college. She had never lived in that kind of group community, and once I figured that out, I realized that that was a huge thing for her to even contemplate. I acknowledged that, and we talked about it. What would that be like for her?
It is many people's stories. One woman, I’ll call her Diane, was much more fortunate than many. She organized a family meeting where everyone was heard. Her mom was part of the discussions. She had siblings that did come together, and it brought them closer. It tears many families apart. They can't agree on where Mom should go or if Mom should go to a nursing home or stay home with care or what. So Diane was fortunate there. The family meeting helps, if you can be civil to one another.
Something else that helps is to have a third party involved. This can be the primary care physician, a trusted friend, a social worker or care manager or someone from your or your parents’ faith community. Even a family mediator can help get everyone talking civilly. Please don’t wait until Adult Protective Services gets involved because no one has the guts to do anything and your loved one is failing to thrive. Above all you are doing this out of love for them and out of a need for their safety. Just always remember you are dealing with a human being whose life and legacy deserve your respect.