THE BLOG
03/21/2013 07:57 am ET Updated May 21, 2013

5 Ways To Help Elderly Loved Ones Age Independently

It's difficult to witness the deterioration of physical or mental abilities in an aging parent, grandparent or other loved one. This is especially true in remembering the days when we, ourselves, were the recipients of their care. Many of my patients' caregivers discuss the transitional challenges they experience when the responsibility for their elderly parents' safety and comfort becomes one of their integral roles. They often reach out to me in need of advice because the task can be intensely overwhelming -- both emotionally and financially.

Whether or not we're well-equipped or prepared, the reality remains that many of us will be tasked with making impactful decisions associated with caring for an elderly loved one. Studies show that within the next 30 years, the number of Americans who are 65 years of age and older is set to more than double, reaching 88.5 million. [i] In other words, while current and future generations decrease in size, they will need to be prepared to care for a larger generation of elderly loved ones in need. [ii] Since 80 to 90 percent of elderly people would choose to reside in their own homes as long as possible, as opposed to a nursing home or independent care, the new role for elderly caregivers can be challenging. The baby boomer generation has now reached a point where they need to be conscious of their caregivers, while still maintaining their independence and active lifestyle.

Many of us would undoubtedly prefer that our elderly loved ones stay in our homes to ensure they are well taken care of and properly cared for. However, this situation can become very stressful for the family as a whole, since leaving an aging parent home alone can pose a major issue if they slip and fall with no one around to help or are unable to follow hospital discharge regimens or daily routines on their own. With that said, we all know that life does not stop and give us a break when we take on new challenges or roles, and since nursing home costs continue to increase, today's technology is striving to make that choice easier by providing families peace of mind in helping elderly loved ones age independently.

Here are five things to consider when elderly parents choose to live home alone:

1. Essential Needs Delivered to the Door

Healthy eating is an essential component in ensuring physical and emotional well being. Driving can be a challenging activity for an elderly parent, which means basic needs like groceries and medicine refills need to be delivered to the door. To make things a bit simpler, efficient and work-from-home friendly, consider online grocery shopping to help reduce the physical stress of standing in line at the local market store.

Since more than 78 percent of baby boomers already use the Internet regularly [iii], and on average, they spend more money online than younger generations [iv], you can consider showing them how to grocery shop online so they feel more independent and in control of their own lives. Today, online grocery stores allow customers to set up shopping lists for easy reordering, and with access to a wide selection of produce, poultry, and even laundry detergent, a visit to the online catalogue makes life much easier for an elderly individual.

If your loved one is not comfortable using the computer or going online, you can place the order and simply request that it be delivered to their door. When the need is great, you can also arrange daily drop-offs from a free food delivery service like Meals on Wheels.

2. Preparing the Home

Patients often ask me how they can properly prepare a home for aging parents, since the home in which they reside should be a safe haven. I often recommend that they first take a moment to put themselves in their loved one's shoes and recognize when and where common needs or hazards may arise in key areas like the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. Some common and basic changes include: Installing bathroom rails to help support them when they walk through the house and avoid unexpected slips and falls, lowering shelves in the pantry so they can easily access items, adding more lighting and removing floor hazards. These changes around the home are basic and simple to do, and can provide caregivers with an added measure of confidence in having a parent live alone.

We should also consider how technology can play a major role in creating a safe environment for the elderly. The latest home security systems can provide caregivers with a real-time overview of the parent's home (of course, with their permission). By simply using a tablet or smartphone, you can instantly review video footage of key areas in near real-time, and remotely control lights, locks and thermostats.

3. Ensuring Health Care Measures

Many hospital discharge regimens require the daily task of taking medicines or checking blood sugar levels, which may seem inconsequential when there's no one there to remind you, but healthy seniors must focus on the maintenance for their good health in order to extend their time living at home as much as possible. Stay in contact with the doctor, pharmacist and/or nurse of an elderly loved one. You can provide extra support in encouraging them to be proactive in the maintenance of their health.

It is very important to understand their medical needs, including how frequently doctors' appointments should occur, and how to implement a low-intensity exercise regimen. Using mobile health tools like "smart" pill bottles can help alleviate some of the tasks on your end, since they remind patients to take their medicine, or you can use a calendar app to track and anticipate upcoming doctors' appointments. Ultimately, it's important to remain sensitive to changes in their health, to help monitor when independently living is no longer the best option.

4. In Case of an Emergency

Caregivers are often concerned when their elderly loved ones are home alone, especially since one out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year. [v] This can become a major crisis if no one is present to help assist when they fall.

When falls and acute medical events (such as heart attacks or strokes) occur, each second that passes matters. Personal emergency response systems (PERS), which allow users to easily and quickly call for help in an emergency by pushing a button, can help provide caregivers with peace-of-mind should a loved one suffer a mishap. Also, mobile PERS solutions can take that one step further to strike the perfect balance between care and freedom. They include things like GPS capability, which could help locate an elderly parent in the event of an accident, automatic fall detection and two-way phone communication, giving new meaning to elderly independence for the healthy aging population as well as those living with chronic conditions.

5. Addressing Emotional Needs

Many elderly parents want to demonstrate their ability to continue managing their own lives, but the need for sincere companionship still exists -- even among those living with a spouse. Feelings of loneliness can have health consequences among the elderly. Research indicates that loneliness increases the risk of an untimely death by 45 percent among the elderly, according to a study by the University of California, San Francisco. [vi]

Meaningful emotional contact is essential for an aging parent -- even simple gestures, such as having others listen and share words of encouragement can positively influence their morale. With the vast popularity and presence we're seeing in adult mobile smartphone owners - seven out of ten seniors own a cell phone, mobile video chat can make visual communication possible when adult children live outside the region. Even if an initial training session is necessary, the ability to view each other's faces will be worth the effort.

Also, keep in mind that seniors are accustomed to leading productive lives, as are you, and their days should involve hobbies and engaging activities. Help arrange regular visits to the local community center for basic computer or senior aerobics classes. It's all about finding ways to help nourish a sense of belonging and purpose, which is something we all need!

The decision to have an elderly parent leave their home should not be driven by fear or concerns. Today's healthy seniors have new resources to make life easier as they continue enjoying the freedom of living independently. With today's innovative approach to the way we communicate with each other via technology, caregivers and the elderly can have strong confidence in the future.

References:

[i] Vincent, Grayson K.; Velkoff, Victoria A., "The Next Four Decades: The Older Population in the United States: 2010 to 2050," U.S. Census Bureau, 2010

[ii] "Aging in Place: A State Survey of Livability Policies and Practices," National Conference of State Legislatures and the AARP Public Policy Institute, 20111

[iii] Lisa E. Phillips, "Digital Lives of Boomers: Reaching Them Online," eMarketer, 2011

[iv] Lisa E. Phillips, "Digital Lives of Boomers: Reaching Them Online," eMarketer, 2011

[v] Hausdorff JM, Rios DA, Edelber HK. Gait variability and fall risk in community-living older adults: a 1-year prospective study. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2001; 82(8):1050-6.

[vi] Carla M. Perissinotto, MD, MHS; Irena Stijacic Cenzer, MA; Kenneth E. Covinsky, MD, MPH "Loneliness in Older Persons: A Predictor of Functional Decline and Death," Arch Intern Med., 2012

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