By Angela Rocheleau
When it comes to buying a new car, many of us spend countless hours combing through magazines and websites that rate the different makes and models. We confer with friends and family, shop online and test-drive the most promising models. Unfortunately, we spend a lot less time and energy helping our elderly parents plan for their futures.
In the 20 years I have been in the home health care business, most recently as the CEO of an agency, I have seen the unfortunate results of this lack of planning countless times. My agency’s first contact with the family is often a phone call, placed by a frantic adult daughter of an elderly woman. The daughter works full-time and has three school-aged children. The family matriarch has broken her hip and can no longer manage in her apartment alone. What now? Suddenly, the daughter has become a bonafide member of what sociologists call the “sandwich generation,” people taking care of their elderly parents while still supporting their own children.
Don’t wait until the situation has hit a crisis level to begin thinking about the multiple issues that confront the daughter — all at once. There are a number of things you can do now to ease the transition into the next phase of your elderly parents’ lives — a time when they can no longer live completely independently.
1. Ask the uncomfortable questions: Do your parents have a will? Have they granted power of attorney to someone they trust? Do they have long term care insurance to pay for home health services or a nursing home? Have they created a living will or designated a health care proxy to make medical decisions if they are no longer able to make decisions themselves? They may want to consider seeking the advice of an elder law attorney to help with these matters. If they have covered the bases, make sure you know where they keep their important documents and familiarize yourself with their contents.
2. Divide and conquer: If you have siblings, initiate a frank conversation about how you will divide the responsibilities of caring for your mother and/or father. You don’t want to learn in the middle of your mother’s healthcare crisis that your brothers and sisters have always assumed that you would take on the entire burden alone, since you live the closest. It’s often helpful to designate one person to be in charge of different areas, like financial matters or day-to-day physical care. This also helps streamline communication between the family and the elder’s service providers.
3. Consider hiring a geriatric care manager: These professionals can be a godsend. They will assess your loved one’s needs and arrange appropriate services, while keeping you informed about your parent’s status. Because services for seniors are often quite fragmented, the geriatric care manager can create a care plan and make sure that all the moving pieces are coordinated. They can also be an objective, mediating force when conflicts arise among adult children about what’s best for their parents.
4. Educate yourself about care options. What do home health agencies offer? What sorts of assisted living facilities are in your parents’ area? Nursing homes? Research facilities and agencies on the Internet and ask for recommendations from trusted healthcare professionals and others. Prepare a thorough list of questions for the agency or facility. Among the questions to ask a home health agency: How do they screen, train and supervise staff? How do they assess clients’ needs and create a care plan? Are they liable for on-the job injuries? Do they bond staff and pay social security and unemployment taxes? One of the best ways to assess a facility is to make unannounced visits at various times of the day.
5. Introduce your parents slowly to accepting outside help: It can be difficult to accept one’s decreasing independence, so it may be helpful to gradually introduce the notion of assistance. Consider contracting for a few of hours of services, for example, to acclimate your parents to the idea of having a non-family member help with the daily activities of living. Then if and when they need more services, it will be an easier transition.
Angela Rocheleau has 25 years of experience in the home health care industry focusing on leadership roles for the past two decades. She serves on the Better Business Bureau board of Central New England and the Executive Board of the Mass Council for Home Care Aides.