The First Steps to Take When Aging Parents Need Help: A Comprehensive Guide

Explore key steps to take when aging parents need help, from assessing their needs to effective financial planning. A must-read for all caregivers.
June 25, 2024
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Key Points
  • Nearly 35 million Americans provide care to family members over 50.
  • The first steps to making a plan are assessing your parent's physical and mental health, and understanding the full breadth of their financial resources, vision for themselves, and home set-up.
  • It's equally as important to evaluate your own situation, including your current physical abilities, emotional bandwidth, schedule, finances, and more.
  • Caregivers should consider legal preparedness, home safety, and various different care and living options.
  • Along the way, the goal is to continue to promote independence, support mental and physical health, and nurture social connections, all with the goal of maintaining a strong quality of life.
Table of Contents

Ever felt like you're walking a tightrope, balancing your own life and the needs of aging parents?

You're certainly not alone: almost 35 million Americans provide unpaid care to a family member over 50.

The journey might be overwhelming, but we're here to give you a compass. This guide will provide tips on how to take your first steps in supporting your loved one. We'll cover financial planning, making home safety modifications, exploring care options, and more.

Understanding Your Parent's Needs

As your parents grow older, understanding their specific needs is vital to ensuring they maintain the highest quality of life possible.

If you have siblings, we recommend going through each stage of this process together. If you're sibling dynamic doesn't allow for that, work to stay as coordinated as possible to not prevent any friction to get in the way of your parents getting the care that they need.

The Importance of Assessment

To start helping your parent effectively, you first need to assess their current state. This isn't just about physical health; it involves evaluating mental wellbeing and social activity, too.

We've built a diagnostic assessment that will show you a score of how prepared you are, and outline any items you still need to take care of. You can take it here.

Additionally, here are a handful of guides that can help you in the process:

You'll need to get a complete understanding of your parent's ability to complete all Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), which are sometimes referred to as geriatric vital signs. These are the abilities that allow someone to function in daily life. They include:

  • Eating (feeding oneself)
  • Transferring (moving from a bed to a chair or vice versa)
  • Bathing or showering
  • Getting dressed
  • Grooming (brushing teeth, combing hair)
  • Toileting
  • Walking (at least) short distances

If your loved one can’t do any one of these things without support, experts would recommend that they no longer live at home independently.

Involving Your Parent in Planning

No one likes feeling powerless. That’s why involving your aging parent in decisions regarding their care is crucial.

If an older adult feels heard and respected during the discussions around planning for future care, they're more likely going to accept whatever help comes along without resistance.

It's not always easy knowing how best assist our loved ones, but starting from a place of listening closely to what they express can make a big difference in the  experience for everyone involved.

Evaluating Your Own Capabilities

Before you dive into the role of caregiver for your aging parent, it's vital to evaluate your own capabilities. This includes both your physical ability and emotional capacity, in additional to details like your schedule and availability, finances, geographical distance from them, and more.

You may feel strong enough now to help mom up the stairs, but can you do it every day? Or what if dad needs more care than just a daily check-in?

Your Emotional Health Matters

Caring for an elderly parent can be emotionally taxing. Feelings of guilt, sadness, frustration, and resentment are common. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings and seek support when needed.

Maintaining your mental health will enable better care. From the get-go, you should ensure that your needs don't take a backseat in this process.

The Cost of Care

Medical expenses, home modifications, caregiving costs, and more all add up quickly and can take you by surprise if you're not prepared.

As early as possible, you should  sit down with your parents to get an understanding of how much they have saved for care, if they have a long-term care insurance policy, and more. Start creating a budget based on estimated future costs, or get visibility into theirs if they've already created one. This will give an idea about how much saving is required over time.

Legal Prep & Paperwork

In addition to managing finances, making sure you have the right paperwork in place is key.

This includes:

  • Health Care Proxy (aka Health Care Agent)
  • Power of Attorney
  • Living Will
  • Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order

Read our full guide on what paperwork to have in place.

Ensuring Home Safety for Aging Parents

Falls are the one of the biggest reasons older adults end up in the hospital. No matter where your parents are living, it's likely their space will need some finessing to be appropriate for their individual safety needs.

Identifying Potential Hazards

To begin, identify common household hazards and make sure none are present in your parent's space. Is it possible to move their bedroom to the first floor where they don't need to climb starts? Are their floors and shelves cluttered? Are there loose rugs or cords that are easy to trip over? Is there enough lighting?

Bathrooms deserve special attention due to their slippery surfaces. Non-slip mats and grab bars can go a long way in preventing issues.

Implementing Safety Modifications

The next step is to implement safety modifications based on what you've identified. Reduce clutter, improve lighting, add grab bars and railings, any more.

In many instances, Medicare may cover a home safety assessment, as long as they’re ordered by your parent's primary care physician. Another good resource is this state-by-state guide to finding fall prevention resources near you from the National Council on aging. You can contact the fall prevention coalition in your area to see what types of support they offer.

Communication Methods for Aging Parents

It's essential for both socialization and safety to get the right tools in place to make communication simple.

Apple Products

If your parent has an iPhone but struggles to use it, we have dozens of videos with iPhone tips ranging from how to make your screen easier to see to how to use the magnifying glass feature.

If your parent has an iPhone but doesn't use it because they find it overwhelming, the new Assistive Access feature is a great way to simplify the phone.

Wearable Medical Alert Devices

Everyone should have some type of wearable medical alert on them so that in the event of a fall, they're able to call for help immediately.

If your parent isn't a fan of a traditional life alert, another great option is an Apple Watch model that has the fall detection feature built in.

Amazon Echo

The Echo has a Drop In feature that allows you to have an instant conversation between two Alexa devices. This is particularly useful if a loved one isn’t picking up their phone and you want to check-in — you can simply “drop in on kitchen” or “drop in on living room” through your Alexa to connect.

Exploring Care Options

From in-home help to assisted living, there are many different care options for different needs.

Understanding Different Care Options

One key decision: whether your parent is going to stay in their current living arrangement or move to a new environment.

Depending on that answer, your next steps might be making modifications needed for safety at home, or touring assisted living facilities or nursing homes which offer more comprehensive support.

Here's a guide on different senior living options.

Maintaining Your Parent's Quality of Life

Enhancing a parent's quality of life includes many different things. You'll want to help promote their independence, support their mental and physical health, and help them build and nurture social connections.

Promoting Independence

We all like to be able to make our own choices. A key aspect of maintaining good quality quality of life for older adults is in promoting independence wherever possible. This may mean helping your parents live independently at home, but with adequate support systems in place to ensure safety and care.

Consider tools like automatic pill dispensers or smart home tools (light bulbs, smart stove knobs, and more) that let older adults manage daily tasks more easily. The goal is to to empower them by providing the necessary tools for independence.

Supporting Mental & Physical Health

Mental and physical health are closely intertwined. Encourage regular exercise, which not only strengthens the body but also boosts mood and cognitive function.

Nutrition plays a vital role, too: Preparing meals rich in essential nutrients can go a long way towards preserving good health. And if your parent is open to it, encourage them to seek therapy if they've been dealing with any anxiety or depression.

Nurturing Social Connections

Isolation is harmful for both mental and physical health. Helping your parents nurture their social connections becomes even more crucial as they age.

You can help them stay connected to their friends and family by using technology like FaceTime or Zoom to join group activities and chat with people far away.

Here's our guide on how to combat loneliness as you age.

The Emotional Aspect of Caregiving

Caring for an aging parent can stir up a myriad of different emotions. You might feel love, respect, and gratitude mixed with frustration, anxiety, and guilt.

Feeling swamped is natural when you're attempting to adjust your own life to balance another person's needs. Remember: it’s a sign of strength to ask for help when you need it.

Finding Support in Others

Connecting with others who understand what you’re going through can be therapeutic.

Search for a local caregiver group, or join one of the many Facebook groups created for people taking care of elderly parents. You can share experiences, vent frustrations or simply listen to others' stories without judgment.

Setting Boundaries to Help Manage Stress

Maintaining boundaries isn’t selfish; it’s necessary.

To prevent burnout from happening, make sure you take breaks regularly. Use these moments as opportunities for self-care, and lean into activities that relax and recharge you, like reading a book or taking a walk outside.

Nurturing Your Mental Health

Prioritizing mental health often takes a backseat during caregiving when it should be at the forefront. Stress management techniques such as meditation or yoga can help, in addition to seeking help from a professional therapist to talk through what you're going through.

What To Do Next
The Bottom Line

Navigating how to help your aging parents is challenging, but you don't have to face it on your own.

Start by assessing where your parents are currently at and what their vision for this chapter of their life includes. Get a complete picture of their finances, insurance, and what paperwork they already have in place so you can ensure there aren't any gaps.

Figure out how you can best retrofit their current environment so that it's safe and comfortable, or find a new environment that is better suited to their needs.

Amidst it all, be kind to yourself as you navigate the meaningful but enormous role of caregiving. Be mindful of what you need to show up and be there for your parents without burning out.

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