Do Fears for Aging Parents’ Well-Being Unnecessarily Curtail Their Independence?

Of course the responsible answer is “yes” and “no.” But looking at a few examples can give us a “heads up” so we aren’t premature in our actions.

We’re heading for the Grand Canyon today. An experience there, over a decade ago, flashes back. The last time my husband and I spent time there my parents were alive (but not with us). We and the people sitting next to us at lunch began talking. Conversation ultimately turned to aging parents–we all had them. Sometimes I think we brag about old parents like young parents brag about their children.

“Driving” entered the conversation. None of us lived near our parents. My dad was still driving; he was younger than the father of the woman sitting next to us whose husband nudged her, urging her to tell us about her dad.

Old Car

Old Car (Photo credit: dr.stabo)

This couple had been reading the statistics about older drivers and decided that even though her father lived in a relatively small town, he had already defied the averages for people his age driving safely by a good many years. So they had the driving discussion with him, explained their thinking, were mindful of his independence, and said he could keep the car,  but he really shouldn’t drive any longer. The town wasn’t large, he could get around by other means. He agreed; they could take the car keys. It was a relief to the couple.

What they didn’t know–and didn’t find out until much later– was that he called the guy he knew at the gas station, said he’d lost his car keys, someone made him a new key and he continued driving safely until he died. His daughter and her husband decided if he was that sharp, they wouldn’t interfere or tell him they knew, and he died happily–in his early 90s, I believe.

Aging parents driving safely and living safely are two understandable concerns.

Because adult children are quick to see assisted living as a solution to many of the problems associated with aging, it’s important for them to be aware of what J. Donna Sullivan, CSW, former Director of Older Adult Services for the Scarsdale & Edgemont Family described as “typical crises” that prompt adult children to “run to put them (their parents) in assisted living prematurely.

“It’s premature,” she said, “because their parents could continue to live fairly independently for another 5-6 years if they took advantage of services that are available in almost all communities.”  (And these services usually cost less than being in an assisted living situation.) Picture the scene: parents aren’t eating properly, they have deteriorated medically, the bills aren’t paid, the mail has piled up, the laundry isn’t done, clutter is everywhere.

“What I’ve probably seen most, is the deterioration of older people’s health because they’re physically not able to get to doctors or dentists or get their hearing aid batteries—things that probably could keep them in their home and keep them independent longer.  There are services to assist them with meals, with transportation, with housekeeping, but they’re not getting them.  The bills aren’t paid and the mail piles up because they can’t see well and need new glasses and ultimately it gets to crisis mode.  These older people need ‘care management,’ not assisted living.”

Local social service agencies can be very helpful: first, by doing an assessment of elderly parents’ needs; then by making appropriate referrals for special services (eg. Meals on Wheels, home aides) or to other appropriate professionals.

We try to help parents age well and that involves supporting their independence for as long as possible. It may not be easy. Indeed it may require a lot of thought and obtaining good information. But assuming they’re doing nothing that threatens their life or limb, we will never feel guilty–in fact we will always feel good knowing that we did the best we could.

Related: :links to 10 vision safety tips for older drivers; “We Need to Talk” (about driving); CarFit; Should you take a Driver Safety Class?