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When a Parent Ages in Place at Your Place: Planning Beyond Design

Moving an elderly parent into your home presents challenges beyond making space. Support from family and community resources can make the transition easier for both you and your parent.
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Moving an elderly parent into your home presents challenges beyond making space. Support from family and community resources can make the transition easier for both you and your parent.

If you are thinking about moving your elderly parent into your house, you are surely asking yourself if it can accommodate the needs of an older person and wondering how many thousands will be needed to add a first-floor “senior suite” with a bedroom and bath.

But, your concerns should extend beyond your house to include your community and your extended family. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to care for an elderly parent.

Can your community and extended family provide the support that you will need?

The first issue to come up will be transportation. If your parent is still driving, this won’t be an issue initially, but if she’s no longer behind the wheel, how will she get around? In the vast majority of American communities, being without a car is a real problem, said Paula Span, New York Times blogger (“The New Old Age”) and author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions,” (Springboard, $24).

You may never have thought about the implications of being “carless” in your area, and you’ll have to assess it from this new perspective. Is it walkable? Is your house on a bus line with a stop close by?  Most counties and cities in the U.S. offer a publicly-funded paratransit service for seniors and people with disabilities. Does yours? How long will it take to get to your house if you live on the edge of town or in a suburb?

A transportation solution that does not include your driving your parent everywhere will make things immensely easier for you and help to preserve your parent’s sense of independence. Equally important, it solves the problem of how to get your parent to places where they can interact with others and avoid social isolation, another critical issue that must be addressed when a parent lives with an adult child, Span said. 

If your parent is only moving across town, he will still have his friends and social networks intact. But if your parent is moving some distance to be with you, he’ll have to make new friends and find new activities.  A younger parent may be able to do this easily, and, by helping with child care and meal prep, to carve out a role in your household as well, Span said. But an older parent is less likely to be able to contribute and may need help in making new friends. A good source for both friends and activities is a senior center. Does your community have one and what services does it offer?

Barry Jacobs, a Philadelphia author (“The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers,” Guilford, $15) and psychotherapist who works with many families caring for aging parents, said that making connections at a senior center not only helps your parent, it also helps you. By developing some outside interests, a parent won’t be so dependent on you and your family for stimulation.

Outside stimulation is especially important if you are still working, Jacobs said. Leaving your parent alone all day often leads to depression and other health issues, and for this reason, he urges adult children to get their parent involved in local support systems for seniors as quickly as possible.
If you can solve the transportation and socializing issues, you can enjoy smooth sailing for some time. And fixing up your house by adding that first-floor senior suite and installing universal design features such as wider doorways so that your parent can easily pass through with a walker and grab bars in the bathroom will make a huge difference in your parent’s ease of movement and comfort.

But eventually, Span said, you’re likely to reach the moment “when the rubber meets the road,” and at that point, you’ll realize that your parent needs help in performing daily functions. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 80 percent of seniors will need assistance getting out of bed, taking a shower, taking medications, using the toilet and moving about. And, Span added, they will need this for an average of about three years.

Who will be providing this 24/7 hands-on care? If you are still working, you’ll have to hire someone to provide it during the day and possibly into the evening and the weekends because you can’t expect to be giving care every hour that you are not in the office. Even if you are not working you will need some backup to maintain your own health.

Can you turn to your extended family and siblings to help provide this care or help you pay for it? Beyond the financial aspects, are family members willing to stay in your house and give you a respite? Will one of them take your parent one day a week or one day of the weekend?

In discussing all the things that caring for your parent entails, you and your family might conclude that she would be better off with a sibling who lives in a more supportive community or in a house that can be adapted at far less cost. Or you might decide that the care could be shared by having your parent rotate between the households of all the adult children in your family.

Whatever you decide, you’ll find that the challenges of caring for an older parent are daunting and that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, said Lynn Feinberg, a senior policy analyst at AARP. But she added, many families who help their parent navigate old age find the positives outweigh the negatives and that being able to give back to a parent can be enormously rewarding.

April 2012