What to Consider When Taking Care of Your Aging Parents
America is an aging nation. In 2022, an estimated 45 million Americans are age 65 or older, and by 2034, the United States will for the first time be made up of more older adults than children, with more than 77 million people projected for the age bracket, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The reality of living in a rapidly aging society means each year, millions of individuals are stepping into the role of caregiver for their aging parents and loved ones, or arranging for them to be cared for by someone else. In fact, research by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found the number of family caregivers in the U.S. increased by 9.5 million from 2015 to 2020.
Whether you care for your aging kin or enlist the professional help of others, preparing early and having open and honest communication with your parents about their wishes can make the experience easier to manage.
Holly Riley, aging services coordination director for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said if you notice your aging loved one is not taking care of themselves or their house the way they normally do, or if they're having trouble keeping up with their financial and legal responsibilities, that's a signal it is a good time to discuss their care plan.
"If an older adult is experiencing diminished mobility or recovering from a fall [or] surgery, it's a good time to assess if services are needed," Riley said.
Making a care plan
You have several options to consider to ensure your aging parents are getting the care they need. Which path you take depends largely on the preferences of your loved ones and the resources you have available.
Many older adults who prefer to stay at home for as long as possible are cared for by informal family caregivers. While making sure your relative is taken care of by yourself or a trusted family member can be comforting, it may not always be possible due to work, distance and other circumstances. Other options include getting help from professional at-home caregivers. Finally, there are assisted living and nursing homes, typically the best strategies for seniors who need more around-the-clock care and/or medical supervision.
"The safety of your loved one is first and foremost," Riley said. "Older adults want to stay independent and in their own homes for as long as possible. Social supports, such as home health care, can help with maintaining that independence. Assisted living facilities provide a broad range of supports, from general supervision and meals to more intensive oversight and assistance with activities of daily living. Meeting with the facility and gathering a list of services provided is important to ensure a good match between the prospective resident and the facility. A nursing facility is generally appropriate for a person who needs greater assistance and support with activities of daily living."
'It's important to include the loved one in all aspects of decision-making and develop a list of what's important to your loved one and make choices based on those preferences.'
Whatever route is best for your family, your aging parents should be able to exercise their agency in the process as much as possible.
"It's important to include the loved one in all aspects of decision-making and develop a list of what's important to your loved one and make choices based on those preferences," Riley said.
Though it can be scary to have a stranger come and care for your aging parents, there are steps you can take to ensure everyone is more comfortable, especially the person receiving the care.
"Interview the potential caregiver together with your loved one," Riley said. "Share with them that they have a choice and options and that if their caregiver isn't working out, together you will search and find someone else."
Jan Galvan, client coordinator at Dallas Texas Caregivers, said one of the most important parts of her job is finding the perfect match between clients and caregivers.
"Once I have that person chosen, then I will go back out with the caregiver to make sure that the client is comfortable with this person and also the family, and then the family stays in contact with me," she said.
Galvan said she has seen both the individuals seeking care for their aging parents and the aging individuals themselves benefit from this process.
"A caregiver, a truly good caregiver, is one that has a passion to take care of these people," Galvan said. "And I find, a lot of times, that a good caregiver has had to take care of their own family member at some point. And, you know, they just have the passion to do this—and the training. So it's always good that the family can see that the caregiver truly cares for their mom or their dad or their grandparents."
Mind the logistics
When deciding on a caregiver or a living facility for your aging parents or family members, a good place to start is researching the resources available to you locally. Many states offer online tools—like these for the state of Texas—that allow you to view the regulatory history of the long-term care providers in your area. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also has a website where you can review important information about federally certified nursing homes.
"It's never too soon to have conversations with loved ones about aging issues," Riley said. "Together, you can identify what's important to your loved one, [their] concerns or needs, and develop plans for addressing them if [or] when they happen."
Aside from ensuring your parents are taken care of physically, it's important to solidify plans for their other affairs, too. According to the National Institute on Aging, aging individuals should make sure important health, legal and financial documents are in a safe place and can be accessed by a trusted loved one if necessary.
Your aging relatives can ensure their future affairs will be handled according to their wishes by making sure any wills or trusts are in order, as well as advance directives, which allow them to designate someone they trust to make arrangements for them if they become sick. Advance directives include a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care, which allows an individual to state the type of care they do or do not want and who they want to have a say in their health care if they become too sick to make those decisions. The National Institute on Aging offers additional information and resources about advance directives.
"Having this plan will make it easier on the caregiver when tougher decisions need to be made," Riley explained. "Throughout these conversations, the caregiver will know that they have addressed things the way their loved one wanted."
Leaning on your support system
Becoming responsible for the care of your parents can be physically, emotionally and financially taxing. Being prepared and having conversations about aging issues with your loved ones early can help avoid some of this strain, but, of course, there are bound to be difficult moments along the way.
It's not uncommon for this stress to affect you and your relationships. In some cases, you may feel so drained emotionally and physically that your romantic and sexual relationships feel the strain. In these moments, lean on your support system and communicate with your partner about how you're feeling. Even through periods of high stress, when sex may be the furthest thing from your mind, making time for emotional intimacy can help keep your connection alive and thriving.
If you need additional emotional support, don't hesitate to look beyond your immediate social circle.
"Caregiver support groups can help, as well," Riley said. "These groups give family/informal caregivers avenues to express themselves in a group of people with shared experiences."