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How to winterize your parents

Posted by BJ Roche  October 4, 2012 11:56 AM

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grannysnowball.jpgWhen you’re a parent, autumn brings homework checks and a return to a regular schedule. But if you’re caring for your own elderly parents, it’s also time to plan for the challenges of winter. With a bit of planning, you can make the season safer for your aging parent, and less stressful for you.

Rule number one: ask for help. The saying, “it takes a village” applies to aging parents as much as children. Enlist your siblings and other family members, and connect with the free and reasonably-priced resources in your community. When mom complains about spending money on her care (and trust me, she will), just say this: “Mom, I love ya, but this is why you saved all these years.”

Jim Reynolds, CEO of Caring Companion Home Care, a Boston-based home care agency, urges his clients to start with a realistic assessment of the parent, particularly if you see him or her every day. You might not have noticed the subtle physical or mental changes that can have an impact on winter well-being, like loss of balance or cognitive abilities. If your mom and dad are still driving, this may be the time to make other arrangements.

“Look for changes,” says Reynolds, “Realize, that person’s status may have been consistent for nearly all the time you’re known them, and you’re used to looking at them in a certain way. So you really need to be observant.”

Safety is the overriding issue, says Reynolds: scan your parent’s living quarters, with a particular eye for fall risks, like coffee tables or throw rugs. With shorter days and declining eyesight, lighting can be a real problem, so upgrade dimly-lit areas like stairs or hallways. Many elderly cut back on heat to save money, so check the thermostat when you visit. The few dollars they may save won’t seem like much if they develop pneumonia.

Older people can get isolated in winter, which can lead to depression and even hoarding, says Reynolds. If your parent is still living on her own, make sure family members are stopping by, and call on members of her faith community to visit. Most towns have a Council on Aging that operates a Senior Center, where seniors can socialize and have meals, or take classes. Many even offer van pickups by reservation.

And when your mother says, “I’m not going there because I’m not old,” (trust me, she will), Reynolds says, tell her this: “Mom, it’s a free movie!”

Consider hiring a part-time home care aide to take dad out for groceries, check on medications, clean, or check e-mail. A good agency will match your parent with the right person, and you may be surprised at the difference it makes for everyone to have a non-family member helping with some of these duties.

Holidays, with their traditions, drama and family logistics, can be tough, so don’t leave much to chance when there’s an elderly parent in the mix. Reduce expectations, simplify the meal, spread out the duties, and do some advanced planning, so everyone can have an enjoyable day.

“Assign someone the specific task of watching dad or mom,” says Reynolds. “Because they can get overtired and overstimulated, they don’t want to be a bother, or admit they don’t have the stamina they once had.”

And don’t be afraid to offer up an excuse to get mom or dad home.

“Plan for someone who’s going to say, ‘I’ve got to stop by the office and dad lives nearby,’ whatever it is, have a plan to get them out of there if you need to.”

If you’re traveling by air, get to the airport extra early. Everything is likely to take longer—from getting through security, to getting the gear into the overhead. Even if your companion doesn’t use a wheelchair, reserve one for the long trip to the gate. And if your mother doesn’t want to use it, (trust me, she won’t), say this: “You must do this or we’re not getting on the plane.”

Or something like that.

Finally, says Reynolds, you need to keep tabs on your elderly parent over the winter months in ways that you hadn’t before. There are all kinds of devices, from a sensor that can monitor the temperature in mom’s house, to GPS devices for parents who tend to wander. Caregivers can update family members using the web (see resources, below).
In all the stress of caring for an aging parent, it’s easy to forget to have fun. But that’s a mistake. “At every stage of life, you can make a difference in the quality of life,” says Reynolds. “You can always make a day better or not as good.”

And it’s not so hard to make a winter day better. You just call your mother and say: “Hey ma, what are you up to? Feel like going to Friendly’s?” (Trust me on this, she probably will.)

These resources can help you with eldercare year round
Your local Council on Aging offers lots of free and low-cost services and activities, like trips, classes, social events and performances. Many serve regular meals for a nominal fee, and have outreach workers who can help home-bound individuals. If you’re just beginning a caregiving plan, it’s a good place to start. You can find it listed on your town’s website.

The Home Care Alliance of Massachusetts
is a non-profit trade association of care agencies. They can help you find a home care aide.

800AgeInfo, a joint effort between the Mass. Executive Office of Elder Affairs and the Mass. Home Care Association, this site offers information on caregiving, and resources for Massachusetts residents. offers a free portal that enables families to share information about their elderly parents.

Denise Brown’s offers a wealth of resources and ideas for all types of caregiving, including a free e-book, The Working Family Caregiver.

Share your eldercare experiences and suggestions on the Fiftyshift Facebook page. And stop by our Pinterest page.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

BJ Roche is a writer and teacher who lives in Western Massachusetts. She’s a senior lecturer in the Journalism Program at UMass Amherst, where she teaches writing, new media and More »

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