Sherry, a widow, age 80, lives alone in a two story apartment. Her only son, Tony, lives on the east coast, thousands of miles away. They are close but the geographic distance makes visiting in person a problem for both. Tony is his mom’s agent on her legal documents and he is more than willing to help. But he always had a worry in the back of his mind about what would happen if Sherry had an accident or a medical crisis. Her arthritis was getting worse, but she insisted that she could manage without help.
Then it happened. She lost her balance on the stairs and fell. She was rushed to the Emergency Room at the nearest hospital, and Tony got the call. What could he do from thousands of miles away? She had to stay in the hospital until she was stable and then she would be transferred to a rehab facility for physical therapy. He immediately made plans to come and be with Sherry. Working, it was not so easy for him to just drop everything and get on a plane. By the time he arrived, Sherry had been transferred to a rehab place, and was getting both physical therapy to strengthen her walking and occupational therapy to help her do various things like dressing and bathing.
Now Sherry was faced with a life-changing decision: where would she go from the rehab home? It was certainly not safe for her to return to her apartment, that much she conceded. The medical emergency had forced her to make a decision she otherwise kept putting off: it was time to move into a place where help was available all the time. Tony spoke with us at AgingParents.com, where advice about these issues is available. We helped Tony assemble a team of people to assist with the transition for Sherry.
First, she needed a geriatric care manager. This was an RN, familiar with not only the rehab facility itself but with all the assisted living choices in the area. She helped Sherry choose a seniors’ community with assisted living. The care manager would also see to it that she had all her medications when she was discharged from rehab and that any supplementary home care would be available as needed. Initially, Sherry agreed to give up driving and she would have someone to take her around to appointments, shopping and whatever she needed. Next, she needed a mover, someone to get the things she wanted to keep out of her place and to donate or otherwise dispose of everything she did not need or want. She was moving from a two-bedroom place into a smaller one-bedroom apartment and much downsizing was required. As our population ages, many services to help with such things have sprung up. Professional downsizers and movers were available and Sherry hired one as she was guided to do.
She also needed a personal assistant to do the many tasks she could not manage, and that Tony would have a hard time doing, being unfamiliar with Sherry’s county. She hired the assistant and things began to fall into place. By the time Tony arrived only a few days after Sherry’s fall, much of what was needed was already underway. He could take Sherry out and about to choose new furniture that would fit in her new place and to help her transition from independence to accepting that this new life was how things had to be for her safety.
Sherry’s story is not a rare one. Fiercely independent seniors often refuse to move or allow help at home, despite the urgings of their adult children. Sherry got to the brink of disaster before she agreed to move from her dangerous apartment with steep stairs. Fortunately she had no broken bones and she was able to recover with the help of therapy in rehab. Others may not be so lucky and end up with more disability from falls than she suffered.
These are some important takeaways from her case for those with aging loved ones at a distance:
- Know a geriatric care manager in your loved one’s area. You can find one here http://www.aginglifecare.org/ . That is the someone to call when an emergency happens. The care manager can be your eyes and ears when a loved one is hospitalized. A word of caution is that this is an unlicensed occupation and qualifications vary. We recommend finding someone with a licensed nursing background, and vetting the person carefully. Just knowing one can help you.
- Explore professional movers who help seniors downsize and dispose of unwanted items. They are different from regular moving companies in that they help the elder person choose what to keep and what to get rid of in their home, and guide the seniors as to what will fit in the assisted living apartment. When a move becomes necessary, it will reduce the load on family to have this help.
- Consider hiring a personal assistant for your loved one during the transition and perhaps beyond. Endless details must be attended to and this will lessen the responsibility on the adult child. Bookkeeping, errands, ordering assistive devices such as a walker, getting favorite food items in your loved one’s refrigerator can all be delegated to a competent helper. Assisted living facilities provide personal care but not individuals to drive your loved one places.
Sherry’s case is somewhat of a wake-up call. Any elder can end up in E.R. at any time. It will lessen your own stress at such a time if you are the adult child, when you have a plan in mind about what to do in advance. For more specifics see our book, The Family Guide to Aging Parents, with healthcare, legal and financial details.