Virginia Morris Answers Viewer Questions on Caring For Elderly

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This is an abbreviated list of tips, but I should add, when you visit, be on the lookout for signs of trouble – an unsteady gait that might preclude a fall, moldy food in the fridge that suggests she's not eating well, a pile of unpaid bills, or a change in her personal hygiene or homecare.

Diana from Indianapolis, In: Do you know about a service that calls the frail, elderly and homebound every day, providing a check in service to be sure they have taken their medications?

Forgetting to take medications or taking too many medications is a serious problem for the elderly, causing thousands of deaths each year.

A number of services will call with a recorder reminder to take medications. Or you can buy an electronic pill box with that alerts someone when it's time to take a pill. You can also buy watches, pagers, and other alarms that can be programmed to go off when it's time to take medication. Some systems also let a person know what to take, how many, and how to take it. More elaborate systems actually dispense the medication.

It's not a bad idea to look into these systems even if you think your parent has this under control, because sometimes things just aren't as under control as you might think. Go online or visit a medical supply store. A large pharmacy might also have a few options.

From Brewster, N.Y.: My mom is 86 and she lives alone now. Do I have to wait for something to happen before we should talk about moving her somewhere?

Oh, please no! Do not wait. Talk to her right away. Look, there is no question about it, the sooner people talk to their parents about the future, the better. Otherwise, you'll be reacting to a crisis, which will mean a lot of work and stress for you, and it will mean fewer options for your parent.

You need to talk, not just about where she might live and what help she might need, but also how she will pay for care (in-home, assisted living, nursing home), which is very expensive. You should also talk to her at some length about her wishes concerning medical treatment and end-of-life care – how aggressively does she want to be treated, what does she fear, what would be comforting, etc. You should also be sure that she has an up-to-date will, a durable power of attorney (giving you or someone else the authority to make financial and legal decisions on her behalf, in case she cannot make them for herself), a power of attorney for health care and a living will that outlines her wishes concerning end-of-life care. Be proactive. Be ready. It will make the world of difference.

You have to start right away because, first of all, it takes a long time – often years -- to get these conversations going, to accept the idea of change, and to make plans. Also, it's easier to do this when it's all theoretical (what if….).

Finally, some of the better housing options have waiting lists.

Start by asking questions and listening to her thoughts and concerns. For example, "Mom, if at some point you couldn't live on your own here, what would you want to do? Where would you want to live? What's most important to you? What if you couldn't live with me?" Talk about her concerns and discuss the options. Don't try to do this in one sitting; it takes many conversations. Urge her to tour various facilities with you. Explore the options and make a plan. Don't delay.

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