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Help your parents stay safe at home while maintaining their independence

We all want our loved ones to be safe as they age, especially if they live alone and are physically or mentally challenged in any way. But even if they are just “aging” and not as capable as they once were, there is cause for concern. At the same time, we want to respect their independence and their wishes which often run counter to ensuring their safety. “Dad, you really shouldn’t live in a two-story home by yourself when you have already fallen twice on the stairs, even if you think you’re fine and you’ve lived there all your life.” It’s a fine line that needs to tread with care. What comes first? Their independence or their safety? Both have to be balanced, which can be easy to believe and harder to put into practice.

While our loved ones no doubt appreciate our concerns for their well-being, our attempts to ensure their safety can in fact threaten their autonomy and what they consider their “well-being”. How many times have you heard: “How do you know what I want?! I want to stay right where I am. I’m not ready to move.” My mother was even more skillful at this dodge: “Yes, you’re right honey, I should get a smaller home; I don’t really want to take care of this big house anymore. Let’s think about it after the holidays.” You know where this is going. She just kept putting it off and putting it off with one excuse after another. There were a lot of holidays until one night she fell; the paramedics hauled her to the hospital and she didn’t remember any of it. Which is exactly what you don’t want to happen.

We may feel strongly that our aging loved one needs some additional help for a few hours a day to ensure their well-being. They, however, may feel that such a person is an invasion of their privacy and that they simply don’t need any help. “I’ve been living alone by myself and doing just fine.” There is often a lot of denial, and a lot of pride; there can also be a lot of fear on their part.

The older people get, the less they tend to embrace change, it’s frightening; it’s unknown. Change is stressful even when we’re young and even “good” change -- like getting a new home or a great, new job -- can be stressful. As we age and feel more vulnerable, when we aren’t as steady on our feet and sometimes get confused, staying in the same place, a familiar place, seems safer (even if it’s not).

As irrational as your loved one may seem in their thinking, you must respect their feelings; you can’t deny them their experience. Accept it, understand it. And gently, kindly, try to rationalize with them. It doesn’t work to tell them they are “wrong”, as right as you may be. You need to agree with them and try to negotiate a compromise; turn the situation into something they want.

My mother was seriously adverse to having anyone in her home to help and very frustrated that she no longer had the independence of driving. We convinced her that her “assistant” would also be a chauffeur (she liked this concept) and that she could be driven anywhere she wanted. It conjured up images of “Driving Miss Daisy” which she loved, and when I said that I wished I had a personal driver because driving was no fun these days with all the traffic, she started to pay attention. Who wouldn’t want their own personal driver at their beck and call?

Helping Parents Stay at Home

This seems to be one of the biggest issues. My generation of parents have been fairly independent, as such, they often insist in staying in their own homes. Many are horrified at the thought of an assisted living facility or even a senior community, as luxurious as some of them appear. They don’t want to downsize or right size; they love their garden, even if they can’t tend it any longer. Or perhaps, they simply can’t afford the option of moving elsewhere. If your loved one is stubborn and strong-willed and used to getting what they want, it can be even more challenging.

If you have family nearby, they can help with the caregiving of an aging parent at home, taking turns cooking, cleaning and caring, keeping a watchful eye. It’s more than just one person can do however, especially if you are working full-time and/or have children at home. If family isn’t available, you can employ professional caregivers who are skilled and trained to work with the elderly. Their scope of work can range from simple companionship, to taking walks with your loved one, to driving, running errands and cooking, as well as more involved care such as dressing and bathing.

To make a house more elder-safe, consider “fall-proofing” it. Create clear walking paths. Remove anything that could cause tripping or slipping; low tables and other small furniture, pet bowls, electrical and phone cords, even throw rugs that aren’t securely attached can cause falls.

Arrange all furniture so there is plenty of room to walk freely. Use non-slip rugs or make sure carpets are secured with non-slip pads. Put non-slip strips or a rubber mat on the floor of the bathtub or shower.

Make sure the house is well-lit. Since eyesight diminishes with age, it’s important to make sure the living space has ample light so seniors can be fully aware of their surroundings and avoid any obstacles in their path. Place a lamp next to the elderly person’s bed, along with night lights in the bathroom, hallway and kitchen. Keep a flashlight by their bed in case the power goes out and they need to get up at night. Install handrails on stairs, porches, showers and baths, hallways – anywhere they need to traverse that may be challenging.

Even with an in-home caregiver, if your loved one is still alone some of the time, especially at night, make sure they wear a medical alert device and ask neighbors to check in and keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary.

Every situation is different, so it is difficult to generalize, and sometimes ensuring both safety and independence simply isn’t an option, but it is possible in many instances to balance ensuring the safety of your aging loved one and preserving their sense of independence. Learn how to have productive conversations about care with your parents and see where the two can come together.

About the Author(s)

An accomplished freelance writer and editor, Cheryl is passionate on how to bolster our resilience in old age and reshape the course of decline. Her compassion and understanding for caregiving stems from acting as a caregiver for her mother, who struggled with dementia, and her father, who suffered from Parkinson’s.

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