Have “The Talk” with Your Parents to Prepare for the Challenges of Aging

By Lynda G. Shrager


When the issue “Can mom and dad stay in their home?” arises, getting aging parents on board with making modifications can be a challenge. To help them stay home as long as possible, family members and caregivers need to ascertain if they’re having physical or cognitive problems, and plan ahead before there’s a crisis.


Some 90 percent of people age 65 and over say they want to spend their senior years at home making independent choices and maintaining control of their lives. Aging in place has psychological benefits, allowing seniors to remain involved in daily activities in a familiar environment, and also financial benefits, as assisted living facilities average close to $50,000 annually.


But as time takes its toll, aging in place can be problematic. If you sense a decline in home upkeep or self-care, it’s best to be proactive. This requires more than a phone call, as the answer to “How are you?” will most likely be “Fine.” Making staying at home viable calls for a fact-finding mission.


Sleuthing begins with a visit. Watch as they move through daily routines. Do they “furniture surf” when moving around the house? Are they unsteady on steps? Did the lost car keys end up in the refrigerator?

Once you’ve finished the walk, it’s time for talk. While parents are never eager to hear their abilities are becoming compromised, presenting your findings in the context of addressing safety issues so they can remain home will help bring them on board.


Here are some issues to address:


1. Attack clutter. Keepsakes often make a house feel like a home, but cherished belongings accumulated over a lifetime morph into clutter, and clutter takes up precious space needed to move around safely. To make the case for decluttering, role-play with your parents that you’re first-time guests in the house. With fresh eyes, help them notice where stacks of paper have accumulated, dusty trinkets have collected and miscellaneous items have gathered.


2. Make modifications to aid mobility. Point out any instability you’ve observed as they walk through daily routines. Share ways to improve safety and facilitate mobility, such as installing handrails along the steps, grab bars in the tub or shower and also opposite the toilet to provide leverage for sitting and standing back up. If using suction grab bars, remember they’re only for balance, not bearing weight. Insist on a safe step stool with only one step — more may cause equilibrium issues. Move regularly used, hard-to-access items to a comfortable counter or tabletop.


3. Up the wattage. Good lighting is a key safety feature. As we age, we need more light order to see adequately. Increase the wattage of light bulbs in high-use areas — the chair where dad reads, the desk where mom pays bills. Get a nightlight to illuminate the path from bed to bathroom. Replace hard to reach lamps with clapper-type lamps. And, if pets tend to lie in the pathway, a glow-in-the-dark collar can keep them from becoming a tripping hazard at night.


4. Delegate duties. If you sense they are overwhelmed managing bills and general household maintenance, “the talk” should extend to how best to delegate these duties. It may be time to assemble a team of helpers. Is there a handy man who can make regular calls? Can finances be relegated to a family member to whom they give power of attorney? Assisting them remotely is easy by setting up online banking, direct deposits of Social Security or pension checks, and automatic bill payments. Help create a “treasure map” of where important records, documents and belongings are kept. Create duplicate house keys, access cards, electronic door openers, and combinations to any locks. Label keys and distribute copies to designated friends and family.


5. Keep emergency numbers close. Help create an emergency phone list with local ambulance companies, fire, police, and hospital emergency rooms, plus contact information of family, friends and neighbors who live close enough to get there quickly. Post it in a prominent place and keep a copy..  Make sure to keep the contacts updated.


We tend to be complacent while everyone is functioning well. But no one thinks they’ll get sick or become injured until they fall. If you can anticipate potential problems and head them off by having “the talk” while things are status quo, you can establish a plan that everyone agrees to and help your parents age in place for as long as possible.


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Lynda Shrager, OTR, MSW, CAPS, author of Age In Place: A Guide to Modifying, Organizing, and Decluttering Mom and Dad’s Home, has practiced geriatric rehabilitation for more than 37 years, focusing on all aspects of senior health and wellness. Her newspaper column, Mom’s RX, has appeared in newspapers across the country, and she is a featured columnist for Everyday Health, a leading online health websites. Lynda combines her expertise as an occupational therapist, social worker, professional organizer, and certified aging-in-place specialist to provide therapeutic care in the patient’s home environment and educate caregivers. Learn more at otherwisehealthy.com.