Helping mom stay independent

November 7, 2011

Q. Like many adults my age, I have done the role-reversal thing and become the “mom” to my 86-year-old mother.

Mom lives in a retirement community nearby with limited transportation — she no longer drives, thank goodness — but we include her in family get-togethers whenever we can. She refuses to get involved in any social activities at the home, however, because she is very hard of hearing and believes that she’s the only one there who has this problem.

Although I spend at least one day a week taking Mom to doctors, to the beauty shop, to the grocery store and to lunch, she has often said that she’d love to go shopping on her own sometimes, especially to her beloved 99-cent store.

When I finally found a program that offers low-cost taxi vouchers in her area however, she quickly nixed the idea. First she said that the taxi company would probably up the fare because she’s an old lady and then she said that her sister had tried a similar program but it got too expensive. And then after our lunch yesterday, she said that it was so nice to get into a car rather than waiting outside for a taxi.

I would love to see my mother have more independence but I don’t see any alternatives for her. Do you?


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

A. Somehow old age can frighten the most confident, independent woman, although your mother may not be able to admit her fears to you or even to herself.

These fears shouldn’t surprise you, however. By now, your mom has gone to more funerals than she can remember; seen her friends take more falls than she can count and on top of that, she has lost her ability to hear well or to drive at all. Any one of those things could have made your mother lose faith in herself but with your help, she can get back at least some of her independence.

Begin by asking her minister or the director of her retirement home for the names of a few retirees who might be willing to drive your mother to the mall once or twice a month. Your mom will probably be willing to go if you say that she’s being picked up by a ‘car service’ rather than a ‘taxi’ and if you agree on a price with the driver beforehand and mail him a check that day, rather than have your mom get anxious about the bill.

You also should encourage your mother to do whatever she used to do best because this will give her a purpose in life.

Even an Alzheimer’s patient can profit from this approach. One former nurse went from cranky to cheerful when her thoughtful son gave her a hospital smock, a thermometer, a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope. She immediately began checking the temp, the blood pressure and the heartbeats of everyone on her floor and she loved it: she had a purpose.

You should also involve your mother in as many family activities as you can. If she likes to cook, ask her to help you make a family cookbook, so everyone will know why her meringues are so light; why her grandchildren want her to cook their broccoli and why her turkey stuffing is better than yours. If she likes to garden more than she likes to cook however, fill a few small pots with dirt, give her some seeds and ask her to grow fresh herbs for you on her window sill.

You can go high-tech with your mom, too, by downloading Picasa, a free computer program, and then asking a teenage relative to scan all of your mother’s family pictures into it and ship them to Photobucket, a free program that will let you share your photographs. Once your mom identifies each picture, you can sort them into folders and give your password to your relatives so they can download the ones they want and even print and frame them.

It’s the stories that go with these photographs that will bring her pictures to life, however, and no one knows them better than your mom.

She can pass on family history more easily if you install Dragon Dictate 2.5, if you have a Mac, or Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5, if you have a PC (Nuance, $99). Your mom will first read a short 10-minute script into the mike so the program can understand her speaking style and then it will type whatever she says at 120 words a minute with 99 percent accuracy.

This is something that shouldn’t be postponed. Your mom spent 86 years making memories; it would be a pity to lose them.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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