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April 23, 2014

Looking After Mom and Dad: Every Child’s Future

We’re not getting any younger.

And neither are our parents. It’s a fact we’re living longer but, with the dismal state of personal finances for an increasing number of North Americans, as the number of people who are living well into their 80s and 90s increases, the number who are doing so in poverty or who are threatening to impoverish their children who are forced to look after them is increasing exponentially.

It’s estimated 44 million adult Americans are helping to provide care for their aging parents. The stress and sleepless nights that come with such a task is mounting and no one seems to have an easy answer for the dilemma.

Our parents looked after us, fed and clothed us for our first 18 to 20-something years of life. If mom and dad expended an inordinate amount of personal resources in looking after us, to set us on our way, and to make their own way in life with minimal planning — a scenario that is troublingly the norm, as opposed to the exception — they and we are often faced with the terrifying challenge of how to best look after our aging parents.

According to WebMD ( the issue is one that a surprising number of Baby Boomers are either already looking after at least one parent or fretting over that scenario.

“Some 41 percent of baby boomers with a living parent are helping to care for them, according to a recent USA Today/ABC News/Gallup Poll, and nearly half of those who aren’t worry about being able to do so in the future. The price tag isn’t cheap: MetLife says the average price for in-home non-medical help runs about $20 an hour, an assisted-living residence costs roughly $36,000 a year, and a private room in a nursing home goes for over $77,000 annually.”

Money aside, just getting to the point of planning for our parents’ ‘golden years’ with them can be daunting.

One of the most crucial steps is “having the talk” with mom and dad about whether they have any plans, how extensive those plans might be and how the whole family can come to a rationed, planned transition into care – whether it be in their own homes, in your home, or in an elder care facility.

“Use your own experience to get the conversation going,” said Virginia Morris, author of How to Care for Aging Parents, in an interview with WebMD. “Say, ‘I’m starting to do my own estate planning, and I wonder what you had drawn up.'” Or print out the entire WebMD article to show them and say, “This article says we should talk about where you keep your papers.”

Something as simple as understanding where estate planning papers, wills and the like can be crucial.

Experts suggest family members tackle the “tricky financial questions as well.” Find out if they have long-term care insurance, and if not, how they plan on paying for nursing home care or in-home help if necessary. Again, tell your parents you’re thinking about doing estate planning and wondered what financial choices they made. “Make it about you, rather than them,” says Hugh Delehanty, editor in chief of AARP Publications — your parents are less likely to get defensive.

When it comes to the health implications of looking after aging parents, the Mayo Clinic has tips:

As your parents get older, how can you be sure they’re successfully taking care of themselves and staying healthy? When you visit your aging parents, ask yourself the following questions. Then, if necessary, take steps to help your aging parents maintain their independence.

1. Are your aging parents taking care of themselves?
Pay attention to your parents’ appearance. Are their clothes clean? Do they appear to be taking good care of themselves? Failure to keep up with daily routines — such as bathing, tooth brushing and other basic grooming — could indicate dementia, depression or physical impairments.

Also pay attention to your parents’ home. Are the lights working? Is the heat on? Are the bathrooms clean? Is the yard overgrown? Any big changes in the way your parents do things around the house could provide clues to their health. For example, scorched pots could mean your parents are forgetting about food cooking on the stove. Neglected housework could be a sign of depression, dementia or other concerns.

2. Are your aging parents experiencing memory loss?

Everyone forgets things from time to time. Modest memory problems are a fairly common part of aging, and sometimes medication side effects or underlying conditions contribute to memory loss. There’s a difference, though, between normal changes in memory and the type of memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. If you’re concerned about memory loss for either of your aging parents, schedule an evaluation with the doctor.

3. Are your aging parents safe in their home?

Take a look around your parents’ home, keeping an eye out for any red flags. Do your parents have difficulty navigating a narrow stairway? Has either parent fallen recently? Are they able to read directions on medication containers? Bathrooms can be a minefield of hazards. A simple bathtub can be a place where parents can do serious physical harm if there are no aids to help them use the tub or shower.

4. Are your aging parents safe on the road?

Driving can sometimes be challenging for older adults. If your aging parents become confused while driving or you’re concerned about their ability to drive safely, it might be time to stop driving. To help your aging parents maintain their independence, suggest other transportation options — such as taking the bus, using a van service, hiring a driver or taking advantage of other local transportation options.

5. Have your aging parents lost weight?

Losing weight without trying could be a sign that something’s wrong. For aging parents, weight loss could be related to many factors, including:

  • Difficulty cooking. Your parents could be having difficulty finding the energy to cook, grasping the tools necessary to cook, or reading labels or directions on food products.
  • Loss of taste or smell. Your parents might not be interested in eating if food doesn’t taste or smell as good as it used to.
  • Underlying conditions. Sometimes weight loss indicates a serious underlying condition, such as malnutrition, dementia, depression or cancer.

If you’re concerned about unexplained weight loss for either of your aging parents, schedule an evaluation with the doctor.

6. Are your aging parents in good spirits?

Note your parents’ moods and ask how they’re feeling. A drastically different mood or outlook could be a sign of depression or other health concerns. Also talk to your parents about their activities. Are they connecting with friends? Have they maintained interest in hobbies and other daily activities? Are they involved in organizations or clubs?

If you’re concerned about your parents’ moods, schedule an evaluation. Depression can be treated at any age.

7. Are your aging parents able to get around?

Pay attention to how your parents are walking. Are they reluctant or unable to walk usual distances? Is knee or hip arthritis making it difficult to get around the house? Would either parent benefit from a cane or walker? Issues such as muscle weakness and joint pain can make it difficult to move around as well. If your parents are unsteady on their feet, they might be at risk of falling — a major cause of disability among older adults.

The Mayo Clinic has many more detailed suggestions on how to begin the dialogue, how to assess the physical and mental state of your parents and how to reach out for help.

Simple consultations with your parents’ doctors, a trusted family lawyer and even clergy can offer support and starting points.

They’re our parents, for heaven’s sake, they deserve to live out their lives without having to submit to the humiliation of being wards of the state in a government-supported seniors facility.

We owe it to them and our own peace of mind to make sure there is a solid game plan for the latter years of mom and dad’s life.

“To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors.”
—Tia Walker, The Inspired Caregiver: Finding Joy While Caring for Those You Love


Chris Malette is a retired newspaper journalist with 35 years of experience as a reporter and city editor. Over his career, Malette covered municipal and federal politics, military, health and court beats. He has reported from Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and covered relief efforts in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He now works for SPN News as an editorial columnist.