It was an awkward situation to say the least, more so for my husband’s grandmother. But I often think about that moment and wonder how long it took her to get the nerve to even ask me, someone she knew but not that well. We lived several states away seeing each other yearly at the family reunion, it wasn’t like we were close but that day we were headed south for a road trip and decided to swing by to visit.
We were shocked when we saw her. She was sitting in her favorite chair getting ready to watch the ballgame as she did every night. Empty TV dinner containers were scattered around, along with her pillow and blanket nearby on the coach. Gone were the days of elaborate meals for her husband, three children, and their combined 25 grandchildren for the holidays or a quick roast already prepared in the oven in case anyone popped over on such an occasion.
Spending a few moments catching up I noticed she seemed very quick with us, very unlike her. She finally came clean quickly blurting out that she had to go to the bathroom but couldn’t get up the stairs, her arthritis pain was so severe. She asked me if I’d help her. I did of course but I wasn’t prepared for that intimate moment, the raw vulnerability of this 81-year old woman who was so independent needing me to help her undress, sit on the toilet, and clean up afterwards. She was so appreciative and hugged me. She didn’t like asking but it had to be done. It was a proud moment knowing how much she trusted me. I remember what she said, “it’s easier asking you because you’re not directly related to me. My daughters would never be able to do this nor would I want them to see me like this.”
How odd to think she had done that very thing for them when they were younger but she didn’t want to worry or burden them with this task. Or maybe it was something else. Perhaps she, like so many other seniors, just wants to live in their home but when issues like this arise, worry that if she asks for help her independence would be taken away so she tries to figure it out on her own. Until of course something major happens like a fall or they take medications incorrectly sending them to the ER. Which happens more often than not.
After leaving her house I called my mother-in-law and shared details about our visit. What would it take to help her stay at home and not be put in that situation again? Were there signs we should have looked for that led up to her sleeping on the couch and eating TV dinners? We live too far away but what about someone popping in and checking in on her? She didn’t need nursing support or clinical care; she needed guidance and a plan.
Daily living activities are one of the most affected issues of aging and are one of the most difficult to address between seniors and their family members, unless you spot the concerns first. But even that can put you in a delicate position when you know Dad needs help with getting dressed or taking care of the yard. How do you tell him without offending him?
The truth is, if you’re going to make staying home work for your aging loved one, bringing up these conversations has to happen. Talking about where support is needed opens the door for maintaining and even improving independence long-term. That alone is a great way to start it – ‘Dad let’s figure out a plan to keep you living life exactly how you want.’ Or ‘Gram, let’s get you off that couch, stronger, and eating better so you can live 15 more years in your home.’ That’s all she wanted.
My Gram always said, ‘the day I leave my home is the day you can bury me.’ A bit dramatic but she was clear and forthright in her wishes to stay home. There’s nothing wrong with exploring senior options when the time is right, especially if safety is a concern, but knowing what they want and helping seniors achieve their goals (not ours) is critically important.
What can you do? Get proactive and ask the right questions:
• Has there been a new diagnosis or a chronic illness getting worse? Would someone coming in to coordinate follow-ups to the physician office help?
• Are they unsteady climbing upstairs or in and out of the shower? Would railings in the bathtub, starting an exercise plan to gain strength, or moving their bedroom to the first floor help?
• Is dust or clean clothes an issue … perhaps because the washer is in the basement? Could a housekeeper once a week help keep things clean and make nutritious meals ready for them all week?
Meant to get you thinking, these are just some of the slight adjustments we learned about that once put in place made an incredible difference in keeping my husband’s grandmother at home. And with exercise plans identified, she is now able to get up and down the stairs again and cook a few smaller meals – her mood and outlook has improved, guess that’s her spark returning.
I suggest downloading this checklist to guide you through the questions and areas you should be paying attention to so that your aging loved one can age in place, safely, and maintain independence. You can also reach out to experts like Homespire, who can take the pressure off you in identifying what needs to be done. Reaching out to their Life Care Managers (registered nurses) is a starting point because they can sit with you and your elder parents to map out a plan and connect you to resources in the Salt Lake Valley area. Remember, seeking support helps them live their best life.
When did you know your aging loved one needed assistance with activities of daily living? How did you help them age in place? Share On!