Since July is the month when we celebrate the independence we achieved as a county, I thought that would be a good topic for those of us who are caring from older family members – and those of us who will eventually be the older family members.

Personally, there is nothing I value more than my independence. As a caregiver for my elderly father and many elderly wards, it is also something I want to provide to those I care for as well. The big question is when does independence become dangerous for the elderly and how do you avoid getting to that point.

The best way to ensure that you have independence as you grow older is to plan. You must make every decision after a particular age with a view to how it will impact your ability to remain independent. For example, when deciding to downsize after your children have begun their own independent lives, factor in whether or not you will be able to manage your new home on your own. Often having a house comes with a lot of extraneous expenses – gardener, repair person, upkeep, etc. If your income is also going to reduce in the near future because of retirement, opt for something that requires little to no maintenance, like a condominium or an apartment. If you are shopping for a new home, make sure that the house is accommodating to your needs now – and in the future – for example, look for a house with a shower rather than a tub, have all the rooms on one floor, be wary of lots of steps to your front door. The most common reason for losing your independence is falling, so you are looking to limit your exposure to falling.

The same is true for elders for whom you provide care. Make sure their house is safe for them. If they need to use a walker or a cane, make sure the doorways are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, since that may be the next device they need. Minimize fall risks, like loose rugs, throw rugs, clutter and other items that will impact their ability to navigate the space themselves. Always remember though, that the person for whom you are caring has his or her own desires and try to accommodate them whenever possible. The worst thing for an elderly person is to feel useless and that he or she is a burden. If they have dogs, consider hiring a dog walker. If they have cats, you can get someone to come in and change the litter, if necessary.

Driving is often the biggest bone of contention between the caregiver and the elderly person. My father, who is 84, only drives locally but if he were unable to drive that would totally demoralize him. In an effort to keep him driving for as long as possible – and to keep me sane – I take a ride with him every now and then, even if it is just to get gas. I am able to reassure myself that he is driving safely that way. If you see that your loved one is having a lot of accidents or doing things that are out of character for him or her, like driving into the garage door, it is time to have “the talk”. To me this is the worst of all talks to have to have. In our society, mobility equals independence. When you take someone’s keys away, you take away their ability to come and go as they please – even if they don’t use that option often. Be sensitive when discussing this issue. Sometimes the elderly person is so adamant about driving that you have to literally remove the source of temptation – i.e., the car. Again, try to do it in a respectful manner, but if you are afraid that the person is no longer safe to drive you owe it to that person as well as innocent pedestrians and other drivers to remove the danger from the streets.

When it comes to where an elderly loved one lives, do what is best for them, not what is easiest for you. My father lives in a beach community about 1 ½ hours away from me. He is happy in his home, which is all on one level, and he is able to keep active by puttering about in his garden. It would be much easier for me to have him close by, but I live in the City and he would be lost here now- it would be way to much stimulation for him. All his doctors are nearby and he has a routine to his life. Don’t upset the elderly person’s routine unless it becomes imperative. Have a conversation with the person about what they would want if they can no longer live alone – will they allow an aide to come in, would they prefer to move into an assisted living facility, etc. The more choice the elderly person gets to exercise, the more he or she will cooperate and maintain their self-esteem.

To maintain your own independence as you get older, think about these questions as they relate to your self and PLAN AHEAD. Buy long term care insurance if that is what you think you will need. Pick out a possible facility. Be involved in planning for the next phase of your life. This will keep you young at heart, and happy.

Posted in Gina-Marie Reitano, Reverse Parenting and tagged , , , , , , , , .