by Craig A. Knapp
Generally speaking, “baby boomers” are people born in the United States between 1946 and 1965. If you are a baby boomer, you may have to face the challenge of caring for your aging parents. Providing that care may occasionally be hard, but it will also be rewarding and fulfilling, since in many ways you will be paying your parents back for the love, attention, and care that they gave you when you were growing up. Here are the ten of the most important things you can do to help and protect your aging parents:
First, take some time to learn about your parents directly from them. Talk with them about their past, explore and preserve their memories. You will undoubtedly be surprised at the richness of their experiences and the wisdom that life has given them. Write at least a short biographical sketch of their lives. Go through old photographs to identify the people they depict. Locate memorabilia and original family historical documents, such as diaries and family bibles. You may be one of the lucky few who know everything about their parents. But if you are like most children, you know little about them as individual people, and even less about your remote ancestors. Learn and conserve what you can and donate it to a local historical association or to the historical section of a local library, college, or university. You are part of a legacy. Preserve it for yourself and for others.
Second, consult with other members of your family about possible care options for your parents. In most families, someone takes the lead in caring for older parents. In other families the responsibilities are shared. See if you and other family members can figure out a good way to share or spread the physical and financial demands of caring for your parents.
Third, while you are consulting, find out the names of your parents’ friends and colleagues. They may be able to provide invaluable insight or help with your parents’ challenges or problems.
Fourth, accept and prepare for the one sure thing in life—death. Simply stated, your parents are likely to die before you do. And when they die, there will be many questions to answer and many jobs to do. Putting off preparations will only cause added grief when you least need it. So make sure that your parents have a will and ensure that the person they chose for an executor (also called a personal representative in many states) is willing and able to serve. Make an inventory of all significant property, learn your parents’ wishes for that property, and follow those wishes. Advise your parents to consult with a good estate or probate attorney. Find out your parent’s expectations concerning the disposition of their remains, whether that is cremation or burial. A few hours of effort and planning will help immensely when your parents die.
Fifth, prepare for the possibility of a sudden decline. Your parents may not age and die gracefully. In fact, relatively few people do. If there are indications of impending dementia or other mental infirmities, obtain a durable medical power of attorney that will let you make important medical and treatment decisions if your parents lose the capacity to make those decisions themselves. Learn what your parents want you to do if they lapse into a coma or into a desperate medical condition that leaves no hope of any recovery. Do they want heroic measures taken to preserve their physical bodies, even if they have lost all higher brain function? Do they want to forego resuscitation and slip graciously into death? Now is the time to find out, not while you are in shock during a medical emergency.
Sixth, as needed, see about routine health and medical care. Older people, in general, require more medications and medical care. Through Medicare and many related supplemental and private healthcare plans, older people have access to good medical care. Check government and private websites for information on available government and private healthcare insurance and healthcare plans that will provide for your parents’ needs. For many plans, signing up while still in good health can result in significant savings.
Seventh, stress good nutrition, good health habits, and consistent moderate physical activity. Encourage an annual physical examination and appropriate specialty tests, such as colon or prostate examinations. If your parents are smokers, poor eaters, or heavy alcohol drinkers, do what you reasonably can to get them to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and drink moderately. It’s never too late to start an exercise program. And they don’t have to join a health club to benefit from exercise. Walking, for example, is an outstanding form of exercise that is as cheap as comfortable clothes and a good pair of walking shoes. Studies confirm that moderate exercise for at least one hour a day dramatically increases mental functioning and quality of life, reduces the risk of injuries and of contracting diabetes, and significantly lessens the risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Eighth, if there are already health issues, don’t be a mere spectator. Learn the names of the treating medical personnel and attend at least some care visits. Find out if your parents have had any sort of geriatric assessment. Learn what medications they are taking and what the side effects or possible drug interactions might be. Speaking of medications, investigate whether your parents can save money by using generic or over-the-counter brands.
Ninth, to the extent they will let you, help your parents manage their finances. Make sure that they are getting all of the Social Security and other retirement benefits that they have earned. Encourage them to invest wisely and carefully. In a volatile economy, it may be tempting to invest in high-yield financial gimmicks. But at this stage in their lives, safety is best. If they want to move into a smaller home, condominium, or apartment, lend a hand in finding an affordable place in a good, safe neighborhood. And at least consider having them stay with you. Americans largely moved away from having three or more generations under one roof decades ago, but the pendulum is swinging back. Perhaps you can make it work. For hundreds of years, after all, that was the norm.
Tenth, if your parents cannot live independently, and they cannot live with you, help them find a suitable assisted-living facility. There are many facilities to choose from. The watchwords are investigation and research. You need to research likely candidates, consult better business bureaus and similar watchdogs, speak with government agencies about the facilities that interest you, and research the facilities on the internet. Entering an assisted-living facility is a major step, since your parents will be under the control of (at first) strangers around the clock. So visit and tour all potential facilities, speak with some of the residents and with their families. Verify everything you are told. If you have the slightest doubt, trust your instincts and go somewhere else.
For many baby boomers, caring and protecting for their parents will be a natural part of their lives. It can be a wonderful opportunity to pay their parents back for all of the care and kindness that they gave for so many years. We hope that the suggestions in this article will make the experience easier and more rewarding.