How to Help Aging Parents From Afar

In today's mobile society, many adult children face the dilemma of helping out their aging parents from afar.

And the holiday season, with the annual trip home to visit grandma and grandpa, presents an excellent opportunity for children to evaluate their parents and how well they're doing on their own.

"What's great about holidays and family gatherings are that people are together for an extended period of time and can often identify areas of concern that they would not otherwise see," says Charles Puchta, author of The Aging America Resource Guide and its accompanying Web site, "So often people can keep their guard up for a short time, but not for a longer time, so all of a sudden more things are visible."

So common is this annual pilgrimage home that the U.S. Administration on Aging has just released a guide for adult children designed to help initiate discussions about the future with their parents during their holiday visit.

Called Face the Facts: Topics to Discuss Now with Your Aging Parents (available at 800-677-1116 or , the guide is a checklist of financial, legal and health insurance considerations and questions for children and their parents to go over.

Universal Questions

Although situations vary greatly from family to family and resources vary widely depending on where parents live, there are certain universals to be addressed. First is your parents' ability to live independently, according to Karen Stevenson Brown, publisher of, a 10-year-old Web site with eldercare information. That starts with their home — how accessible is it? Will there be a need to remodel or even move?

Another question: How well do they drive? Is a drive with them frightening? Have they had fender benders? Would an AARP Driver Safety class, one designed for drivers 50 and over, help? Should they limit their driving? The physical consequences of aging mean that mass transit isn't always a viable alternative. Some communities have driving services that will help seniors.

Other things Puchta recommends checking during that visit home include the contents of the refrigerator to see how well parents are eating, signs of bills piling up or mail not dealt with, mood changes such as depression or irritability, their ability to manage their medications, and other telltale signs they may need help.

If one parent is healthy and the other ill or disabled, there's the task of managing the caregiver. Here, responsibilities include scheduling breaks for the caregiver, which could mean having relatives or professional aides fill in or checking the ill parent into respite care. It's also important to monitor the caregiver's own health and wellbeing as well as his or her true capability to care for a beloved partner.

Arranging and paying for homecare is another major hurdle. In some instances, Medicare will often cover in-home nursing care if a doctor orders it or because a parent has recently been hospitalized. But if it's a matter of having someone watch over mom or dad because they have Alzheimer's, it's more likely that you or your family will foot the bill for that. Some long-term health-care policies cover such care, but it varies greatly from policy to policy.

Crises do occur — illness, accident, heart attack or stroke. But the consequences of these events are similar to the issues above: limited independence, need for some kind of assisted care, help with managing personal business affairs — and these are all eventualities that families can prepare for.

Once You're Back Home

Once children return to their own homes after the holidays, there are a variety of ways they can help their parents from afar. Communication is a major one. Use telephone and e-mail. Consumers over 60 are the fastest growing group of computer and Internet users, according to Microsoft. Kids can help their parents set up computers and it's a good way to communicate. Seventy-year-old Barbara Murphy in New Lisbon, Wis., for example, keeps in touch with her 11 kids and 26 grandchildren by both phone and e-mail, using a computer one of her sons set up for her.

Setting up a relationship with members of your parents' community is another way to watch over them. Neighbors, friends, health-care providers, members of your family's church and, in the case of parents living in an assisted care or dependent care facility, a staff member can all help.

Going home more often is yet another way. Lynn Schwaab used to spend six weeks every summer with her parents and in-laws. Her husband Dick would make frequent and shorter visits home year round to help with business affairs. Ultimately, the couple moved from Washington, D.C., to Wisconsin to be nearer to their parents.

Patti Novak Echenique is another who moved back home, leaving California for a job in Illinois in order to be closer to her dairy-farmer parents. This fall she helped her parents sell their dairy cows as the couple scales back on some of their farming operations.

It's inevitable that parents age. But families should remember that aging can be a gradual process, with some declines but plateaus and improvements as well, says Brown.

And, there's never been a better time to be a senior citizen.

Today's seniors live longer, are healthier, better able to get around, better educated and have more opportunities to lead an active and healthy lifestyle than previous generations, according to data from the Administration on Aging.

A classic example: John Glenn returned to space in 1998 at age 77, showing that senior citizens who have the right stuff keep it. Increasingly, there are more and more seniors like Glenn who continue to enjoy a rich quality of life that rewards both them and their families.

Resources and Ideas

Here are some resources and things you can do to help deal with your parents' aging:

The Administration on Aging's Eldercare Locator (, 800-677-1116) can help you find what services are available in your parents' community. Other helpful organizations are the National Council on Aging ( and the National Institute on Aging (

If it's affordable for your family, think about a geriatric manager who looks at the big picture — health, legal, financial, community, etc. — to help draw up a strategy. Hospital social workers, lawyers and local senior centers may be able to recommend geriatric care managers. Or, you can check the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers Web site,, become your own by tapping into your parents' local network of friends (which may include your own old friends) and community (including church), associates and health-care providers such as doctors, pharmacists, dentists, etc.

Choose a good long-distance phone plan, and if you expect to be flying home a lot, link it to your frequent flyer plan in order to accrue miles to use for free trips home.

Set your parents up on e-mail; seniors are now the fastest-growing online market.

Use Caller ID. That enables you to take a parent's call when others may be unimportant. Give your parents a cell phone to make it easy for them to call you. Program your numbers into the auto dial function (on both land lines and cell phones), label the power cord and plug it in a frequently used room so it's easy for them to recharge it. Make sure they have a message machine, and teach them to leave messages on yours.

If you're helping out with finances, move your parent's finances online to expedite paying bills and similar financial tasks.

Check out your company's family leave policy. Puchta says he's seeing use of family leave increase dramatically to care for parents. He did it to care for his mother.