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CARING FOR AGING PARENTS

Making home living easier

Try to balance their need for independence with your concern for their protection by taking some extra steps.

February 06, 2012|Karen Ravn
  • Spending time at an adult day care center can help keep an older parent from becoming too isolated.
Spending time at an adult day care center can help keep an older parent from… (Edward A. Ornelas, Associated…)

Your parents say they couldn't bear to lose their independence. Their hearts are set on staying in their own home for the rest of their days. And you understand. It's what you'd like for them too. But they're not as young as they used to be. Not as strong and on top of things. And you can't help wondering if their plan is really wise, or even feasible. So you worry.

The question of what's best for mom and/or dad is one that bedevils many children with aging parents, says Dr. David Reuben, chief of the geriatrics division in UCLA's Department of Medicine. "One of the things older people want most is to stay in their own homes. But there's always a tension between autonomy and safety. Children may want to err on the side of safety, but parents may want to err on the side of autonomy."

Of course, the time may come when physical or cognitive limitations make independent living impossible. But until then, there are steps you can take to make your parents' home safer, their lives in it easier -- and your concerns about them a little less daunting.

To make a home more elder-friendly, a safety assessment is a good place to start, says Myra Hyatt, a specialist clinical social worker at the Landon Center on Aging at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. That means having an occupational therapist inspect your parents' home for safety concerns and suggest ways to deal with them. These are some of the main issues that often come up in such assessments.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 09, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Caring for parents: In the Feb. 6 Health section, an article about ways to help aging parents live safely in their own homes omitted the address for a website that contained a "Housing Safety Checklist for Older People." The address for North Carolina State's Family & Consumer Sciences website is www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/. To find the link to the checklist, click on the "Housing" tab.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, February 13, 2012 Home Edition Health & Wellness Part E Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Home safety: In the Feb. 6 Health section, an article about ways to help aging parents live safely in their own homes omitted the address for a website that contained a "Housing Safety Checklist for Older People." The address for North Carolina State's Family & Consumer Sciences website is www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/. To find the link to the checklist, click on the "Housing" tab.

Stuff happens, so be prepared. If they have a personal emergency response system, your parents can call for help, 24/7, with only a push of a button. Newer systems can detect when a person has fallen down, so even if they're too injured to push the button, the system will automatically alert an operator, Hyatt says.

Being prepared can prevent stuff from happening. An emergency response system is a very fine thing, but in the long run it's more important to create an environment where such a system is needed as rarely as possible, says Linda Ercoli, director of geriatric psychology at UCLA. "If you fall and break your hip, you might be able to push a button and get help, but the fact remains that you'll have broken your hip."

Indeed, your parents' home may be booby-trapped with all sorts of falls waiting to happen -- including slippery showers or tubs (add grab bars), slide-prone throw rugs (get rid of them or tape them down) and fate-tempting steps and stairs (consider installing ramps or even chairlifts). Poor lighting is another open invitation for your parents to take a tumble or bang their heads or stub their toes. With brighter, better-positioned lights, you'll be sure they can see what they're doing and where they're going.

Be an alarmist. Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms should be standard in every home. But your parents might also benefit from other, more specialized alarms, Hyatt says -- for example, there are alarms that will go off if a pot has been left unattended on the stove for too long, or one that can remind them to take their medications (and can alert someone else if they don't).

Life-simplifying devices. Clothing that fastens with Velcro -- instead of buttons or zippers -- can make a welcome difference for fingers stiff with arthritis. And for backs no longer terribly keen on bending, an extra-long shoehorn can be a real blessing. Speaking of recalcitrant backs, a handy-dandy reacher/grabber allows for bend-free retrieval of items that fall on the floor as well as stretch-free retrieval of objects from high shelves.

Staying connected. Isolation can be a problem for seniors, especially as they become less mobile. If their hearing has also gone downhill, talking on the phone may be difficult. But a phone with amplified speakers can help, Hyatt says. And if their eyes aren't so sharp anymore, big buttons can help too. So can email with big type.

Senior centers and adult day care are other good options for those who can get to them -- as are pets, at least in the right circumstances. "They make great companions," Reuben says. "People relate to them exceptionally well." On the other hand, he warns, "if your parents can't walk very well themselves, they obviously won't be able to walk a dog. And pets can get underfoot." Tripping over a leg-rubbing cat or toy-chasing dog can cause falls. Think goldfish?

Food. Nutrition can be problematic for seniors, Ercoli cautions. "Will they eat right -- or even at all?" Perhaps your parents are eligible for Meals on Wheels services. Also, senior centers often offer no- or low-cost lunches. You might even hire someone to shop for groceries and prepare meals.

Professional services. Staying in their own home can be a lot easier for your parents if they don't need to worry about keeping it clean or keeping the yard looking good. You can hire professionals to do those and almost any other chores your parents might no longer feel up to.

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