The march of time is beginning to trample an elderly father, sister or husband.
Driving, once a convenience, has become dangerous. They may no longer be able to cook or keep house and may even forget to eat prepared meals or take needed medication. A progressive illness, such as Alzheimer's disease, may be slowly destroying their mental capacities.
What to do and where to go to help the elderly when they are no longer able to live on their own? A group of panelists--ranging from the operators of adult care centers to an attorney specializing in patients rights--tried to make finding the answers easier during a workshop Saturday in Gardena.
It was presented at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center by the Gardena Valley Affiliated Committee on Aging. Among the 125 people attending were health care professionals, people who already are looking after aging relatives and senior citizens who said they just want to be informed about what could happen to them.
Judy Zarit of the USC Center for Adult Development said it is a myth that younger Americans abandon the elderly. "Study after study shows there is family contact," she said. "Children move away for careers, but they do return, or move their parents to be near them, when they become frail."
But not everyone can expect support from family.
"I'm concerned about my future," said Ruth Hall, a Torrance schoolteacher.
"I don't have a lot of immediate family and I wonder who'll care for me if I need it."
For some who need care, a housekeeper or someone to cook or drive on a part-time basis may fill the bill, Zarit said. But while it is "not easy to find someone who can help," she said a local senior-citizens center is a good place to start finding out about services that are available. Organizations that specialize in helping people with specific illnesses, such as Alzheimer's Disease, can also be helpful.
If a home aide is needed, a newspaper ad can work, Zarit said. "Retired senior citizens who are in good health want to do that kind of work."
But some people are so impaired that they need medically supervised board and care, or a full-fledged nursing home.
"Shop before you need to, before you are in an emotional situation," advised Vickie Bergersen, a Long Beach convalescent hospital administrator. "It is very important to check and to find a good facility."
Mary Fouts of Redondo Beach said she came to the workshop to learn more about nursing homes. "I have a mentally ill sister in a Torrance nursing home and I want to see if I can't find a better place for her," she said.
What does someone look for in a convalescent facility?
"See if it's clean," said Gene Painter, program administrator of the Gardena Human Services Department. "Look at and smell the food. Go at night and see how many staff people there are. Find out if they are registered nurses or aides and find out if the doctors who refer people there are geriatric specialists."
Several panelists said that although progressive illness often makes it impossible for the elderly to live alone, the last thing they want is to give up is their independence and their homes. They are even likely to resent a housekeeper or an aide hired to help them.
Said a Redondo Beach woman of her 83-year-old mother, "She wants complete independence, but she wants me to do it. I can't."
Eileen Kossak, an attorney and president of Caring Children of Aging Parents, said children and parents share problems when the need for help arises.
Frail parents can feel resentment or hate over what they see as the theft of their independence, Kossak said. And children--being asked suddenly to take over for parents who always were the ones who took care of them--find themselves faced with "an awesome responsibility."
She said that wherever possible, parents and children should fully discuss the situation. "Let the parents know that they spent years caring for other people, and it's all right for them to ask for care in return," she said.
Returning to the subject of myths, attorney Irene Silverman said there are misconceptions about legal protections for the ill and elderly.
Although many people write "living wills" specifying that they do not want to be kept alive by artificial means, such documents are not recognized as legal in California. Recent legislation, she said, provides a substitute that is legal in the form of a binding power of attorney for health care. But some banks and hospitals do not recognize them, either. However, under the law, "they must be followed," she said.
Painter said the workshop, which gave several hospitals, self-help groups and patients-rights organizations the opportunity to set up information tables, was started last year to help people sort through the many services for the elderly. Co-sponsors are cities of Redondo Beach and Gardena.
Said Painter, "We wanted to present issues that frequently come up: How do I pick a facility, how to I know a good one from a bad one, and how do I know I got what I paid for?"