If you live far away from your elderly parents (or relatives and loved ones) it can be hard to assess how they are faring as they age. A visit home—or even a Zoom call—is a great opportunity to look for certain clues to make sure that mom and dad are still able to live comfortably and safely in their home.
According to Brian K. Unwin, M.D., chief of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Carilion Clinic, three key factors can affect whether elderly loved ones can remain in their home independently and safely: home, health and finances.
Note: The New River Valley Agency on Aging offers extensive free resources to families who want to help their loved ones identify their needs, preferences and make realistic decisions on each of these aspects of their lives, as well as transportation and continued growth.
First, evaluate the home to see if it meets their needs now, as well as in the future as they age.
"If the home is dark or cluttered, or if items they use every day are not easily accessible, then you might need to make some minor modifications to make the house more livable on a day-to-day basis,” explains Dr. Unwin.
Try a few of these easy, low-cost improvement ideas from the AARP to ensure that your loved ones can age in place:
Reduce Fall Risk
- Install handrails on both sides of any staircase
- Remove clutter from stairways and hallways, including scatter and throw rugs
- Secure electrical, telephone and computer cords along a wall to prevent tripping
- Check the driveway and sidewalks for loose bricks or pavers and debris, including slippery wet leaves and moss
- Install grab bars next to toilets and bathtubs and in showers
- Place items that are used frequently in an easily accessible place
- Add pull-out cabinet shelves for easier access
- Replace doorknobs with levers
- Install a hand-held adjustable shower head
- Place a sturdy bathtub or shower seat in the tub and/or shower
- Install off-set hinges on doors to add two inches of width
- Arrange furniture to allow for easy passage
If mobility is an issue, install a chair lift on the stairs or, if possible, arrange the home so everything can be easily accessed on one level.
- Set the hot water heater to 120 degrees to reduce energy costs and prevent scalding
- Install a security peephole on exterior doors
- Trim overgrown shrubbery to provide a clear view outside
- Install motion-sensor floodlights outdoors
“If you notice that the house is unusually dirty or if mom or dad are not wearing clean clothes, you might need to consider using the services of a home care provider,” says Dr. Unwin. “This could allow your loved one to remain in their home longer.”
To find local resources within your parent’s community, visit Eldercare Locater.
Next, if you are not up to date on the state of your loved one's current health, sit down and have a frank conversation. Ask the following questions:
1. What are their current health problems?
2. What medications are they taking?
3. How do their medications make them feel?
4. Has their doctor or pharmacist reviewed all of their medications for possible side effects or dangerous interactions?
5. Do they need a pill organizer to help them remember to take their medications?
6. Do they need help filling out any medical or insurance forms?
“Medication management is a frequent issue for many seniors and is a common reason many end up in a nursing home or in the hospital,” said Dr. Unwin.
And if you have not had a conversation about their end-of-life wishes, don’t wait.
“It is never too early to start talking about the kind of care your loved one would want in the event of a medical crisis or at the end of life,” notes Dr. Unwin. “If mom or dad lose the ability to express their wishes or manage their own affairs, an advance directive and a power of attorney are essential to ensure that their wishes are being honored.”
The third area to review is your parents’ finances. And while this can be a difficult subject to discuss, remind your parents that you only want to make sure their finances are handled according to their wishes in case of an emergency.
“The ability to successfully and consistently manage one's financial affairs is often one of the first abilities to decline,” notes Dr. Unwin. “And the decline is much quicker when dementia is involved, resulting in those that are cognitively impaired to quickly lose their hard-earned savings.”
In addition, the elderly are often more likely to fall victim to scams and fraudsters. So, have the conversation now, rather than wait for a crisis situation to arise. Ask the following questions:
1. Is all of their financial information in one place?
2. Can you access it in an emergency?
3. Are bills stacking up?
4. Do they have any bills they can’t pay?
If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, you might need to step in.
“A few simple planning tools—power of attorney, joint bank accounts, trusts or even a basic monthly budget—put in place right now can go a long way toward protecting a vulnerable parent,” says Dr. Unwin.
The bottom line is don’t be afraid to ask and don’t put it off.
“An assessment of your loved ones will help identify any potential risks and lay out a plan to reduce those risks, all while allowing them to remain in their home, right where they want to be,” Dr. Unwin adds.