You’ll need to adjust more than your house when an elderly parent moves in

April 13, 2012

If you’re 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 he’s no longer behind the wheel, how will he get around? In many communities throughout the Washington area, being without a car is a real problem. 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, said Paula Span, author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.”

Among the considerations, she said: Is your community walkable? Is your house on a bus line with a stop close by? The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s MetroAccess offers paratransit service for seniors and people with disabilities. You’ll need to check with the agency to find out whether it’s available in your area.

A transportation solution that does not include 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 he 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”) and psychotherapist who works with many families caring for aging parents, said making connections at a senior center not only helps your parent, but 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 you will probably reach the moment when you realize that your parent needs help in performing daily functions. According to the 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. Span said 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 your parent 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.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

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