Q: I am 55 years old and live in Los Angeles. I recently visited my 79-year-old mom who lives in her own home in Walnut Creek. She seems to be doing fine, yet each time I leave I find myself worrying about her living alone and wondering if I should be doing something? Any advice? – R.S., Los Angeles
A: It’s funny how at a certain age, we baby boomers start worrying about our parents in a way that feels different from our earlier days. It’s not unusual for friends to say to me in a surprised tone, “I just saw my parents and they seem to be getting so old,” as if aging was something that was not going to happen to their own parents. Our own aging process makes us more aware of the changes in our parents and often increases our need to want to take care of them. But how to take care of them, what to do, and when to intervene? That can be complicated.
First of all, I would ask if there are specific things that are causing you to worry about your mom. Is she just slowing down, or have you noticed things like her having a hard time doing grocery shopping and keeping up the house, forgetting things, not socializing, losing weight, or falling? These are the types of issues you want to keep an eye on because they can indicate that it may not be safe for your mom to continue trying to take care of herself alone.
The reality is that most older adults want to “age in place” or live at home as long as possible. This is probably true for your mom and will likely be the same for you too. Talk to your mom to see what she thinks. If she feels very strongly about aging at home, then you can work together to figure out what kinds of services she’ll need to make that happen. Maybe she just needs someone to come in once a week to do the grocery shopping. Maybe she needs help with bathing and dressing each morning, but is fine on her own the rest of the day. Or maybe she is getting to the point where she needs someone in the house with her around the clock. The more you can think about being in partnership with your mom rather than making decisions for her, the easier it will be to talk about bringing support into the home for her.
Perhaps the trickiest question to answer when we are caring for our aging parents is whether to intervene and when. Virginia Morris, in her book “How to Care for Aging Parents” talks about how “the need to protect our parents’ independence” can often collide with “the need to look out for their safety and welfare.” There may be issues such as memory loss or physical problems that make it clear you need to step in because your parent’s safety outweighs her need for independence. But this can be difficult when it is not so clear cut. When that happens, what are your options?
If you reach this point, I would suggest talking to a professional who can help you and your mom figure out if it’s time to make changes. Many people don’t know about geriatric care managers who are master’s level trained professionals who work with older adults and their families. There is usually a charge for this service but depending on your financial resources, you can decide whether you want a one-time consult, an in-home assessment, or ongoing monitoring. My family hired a care manager when my dad was ill because my sister and I lived far away and my mom was feeling overwhelmed. He was able to develop a plan for my father and was also an excellent resource for services in the community where they lived. He had a lot of good, practical suggestions because he saw similar situations and he was able to provide an outside perspective that helped us see things a bit more clearly.
If finances are an issue in hiring a geriatric care manager, then find a local caregiver organization or support group so you can talk to other people in this situation and learn about resources in the community. And while it may seem obvious, I can’t stress enough the importance of talking with friends your own age or older. I often find that it seems like all of us baby boomers are facing similar issues with our own parents at the same time. Talking may not keep us from worrying but it helps to remind us that we are not alone.
Rob Tufel, MSW, MPH, is director of Adult Services at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the East Bay. His columns will appear regularly in j’s Seniors supplements. Have any questions about your aging parents? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 352.