When it's time to take care of your parents

February 25, 1999|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

Aging, though inevitable, can be a difficult topic to discuss.

But area experts recommend families talk about it openly so plans are already in place when older parents need special care.

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"Not talking about it doesn't mean it's not going to happen," says Ann Adams, a licensed clinical social worker with Psychotherapy Services LLC in Frederick, Md.

"This is a very big issue in our society. We're going to have to address it one way or another," says Eileen Dooley, director of Berkeley Senior Services in Martinsburg, W.Va.


Dooley and Adams recommend adult children start discussing their parents' care with them long before circumstances force the subject. Find out how they would prefer to be cared for before they are incapable of deciding, they say.

However, "Most people are crisis-oriented," often waiting until their parents are hospitalized before they start studying options for care, says Millie Vauthrin, director of Break-Away, a senior day program in Hagerstown.

One of the struggles some grown children face is that their parents may have been raised to not discuss their wants, Adams says. They also may not have heard discussions about preparing for aging as they grew up, she says, because people didn't live as long in the absence of antibiotics and advanced medical procedures.

The options

One of the many difficult issues faced by adult children of the elderly is determining what level of care their parents need.

For older men and women who don't need nursing home care but require some sort of assistance, options include adult day programs, assisted-living centers and group homes. Those who are more self-sufficient may continue living on their own and take part in exercise, social and travel programs offered through senior centers or commissions on aging. They may also turn to programs like Break-Away and regional senior services for transportation to grocery stores and medical appointments, occasional meals or in-home care.

"There are services in place but they're not enough," Dooley says.

Children often opt to take on a major role in the caretaking. Some may spend 12 to 40 hours a week toting their parents to medical appointments and the grocery store and doing heavy housecleaning, Dooley says. Others may take their parents into their homes.

However, Dooley said many older citizens prefer to live independently. Of the 1,200 people who utilized Berkeley Senior Services from June 1997 to December 1998, she said 44 percent live alone and 27.5 percent live with a spouse. Only 8 percent live with their children, 5.5 percent live with relatives and 9 percent live with nonrelatives, she says.

Many adult children are from what Vauthrin calls the "sandwich generation" - those who are caring for their own children as well as their parents. Careers may be an added responsibility, further complicating the mix.

"I see these people who run themselves ragged," says Stacey Sutton, social worker at Break-Away.

A common problem Vauthrin hears about is that senior citizens are not sleeping at night, which means their caregivers aren't, either.

While they feel the need for help in caring for their aging family members, grown children may struggle with two major problems - guilt and finances.

"They feel so guilty about it," Vauthrin says.

The cost of adult care programs and in-home services is prohibitive to some. That can be compounded by the fact that older parents may be on fixed incomes and their insurance may not cover such services, Dooley says.

Many of the tasks people are paying for used to be done by family members, says Pat Chambers, who started Eldercare Support Group in 1993 in Frederick. Now, however, relatives may not live as close as was common many years ago, and both the husband and wife may be working, so time constraints are a factor.

Chambers emphasizes that while people may dwell on the painful issues surrounding their parents' aging, there are positive aspects. While caring for their mothers and fathers, children can benefit from spending more time with them and learning more about their lives.

"You can't help but laugh at some of the things," Chambers says.

It is also nice to have people to talk to who understand the ups and downs of being a caregiver, she says.

"I just think support groups are so important," Chambers says.

related stories:

-- Daughter spends nearly a decade caring for her parents

-- Resources

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