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Family Health

Aging and Independent Living: They Can Go Together

Your mother still has that same youthful sparkle in her eye. She's just walking a little slower and may have more medicine in the cabinet than she did when you were rolling around in diapers. If you have an aging parent or loved one, you may worry if they live alone. But that doesn't mean aging and independent living can't co-exist.

Preparation, communication, and a thoughtful approach can make the transition into independence easier for both you and your loved one. Amy O'Rourke, president of a nonprofit called Aging Life Care Association, works to equip people in their advanced years with the tools they need to face the challenges of aging head on. She advises to:

Prepare yourself for change. Caring for an older parent or loved one requires a lifestyle shift. O'Rourke advises recognizing the risk involved while preparing for the future. "You can't prevent all the things that are going to happen," she says. Make sure you have your own emotional support in place: friends, other family members, religious organizations, or even a counselor with whom you can explore and express your worries and ideas.

Start talking before the need arises. O'Rourke and other experts recommend sitting down for an open discussion with your loved one, at least by the time they're in their 70s, to discuss aging and independent living. Ask them what they like about their lives now and what wishes they have for their future. Many older people want to remain in their own homes. If that's your loved one's desire, frame your suggestions with that in mind. Remember: This isn't a once-and-done conversation. Continue to follow up with each other along the way to see how their challenges and visions for the future evolve.

Schedule a visit. Before jumping to any conclusions about your loved one's physical or emotional state, spend some time with them to truly see how they're doing. This should be an in-person visit, if possible, O'Rourke says. "What they say over the phone may conflict with what's actually going on." In person, you can check their fridge for fresh, healthy foods, see if the house is tidy, and maybe even chat with a neighbor or two. But the first source of information should always be your loved one themself. Even if they're stubborn about disclosing details about their personal well-being, an honest conversation that equally involves everyone is always the best place to start.

Ask open-ended questions. O'Rourke recommends open-ended questions to identify areas where your loved one may want assistance. While you might be concerned about their eating habits, maybe they're more worried about paying bills or coordinating doctor visits. "It's a whole new way of communicating," she says. "You have to go underneath the problem to find out how to help." Some considerate questions to ask include: "What's on your worry list?" or "If you could take one thing off your plate, what would it be?"

Start small. O'Rourke suggests looking for "tiny little openings," to offer assistance in the beginning phases of need. For instance, consider asking to put your telephone number on the refrigerator or in their wallet so that people know to contact you in an emergency.

Introduce technology with mindfulness. Many companies are developing innovative tools to help older people live independently. In-home medical alert systems, wearable alarms, and webcams are popular aids. Before introducing a new gadget, ask your loved one what they think about using them. "You don't want to put technology on top of a parent's feelings," says O'Rourke. It's best to support healthy aging and independent living without creating false reassurance or inserting a wedge into your relationship. Instead, be mindful of your loved one's feelings, and arrive at new solutions collaboratively.

Enjoy the time you share. Supporting a parent or loved one as they age can be stressful, but it also offers a precious opportunity to deepen your relationship and create important memories, just like helping a friend through a tough time or comforting your child after a tough day at school deepens those relationships. "You'll never forget those moments when you're together in that struggle," says O'Rourke.

Your goal should always be to encourage your aging loved one to maintain their independence and stay true to their sense of self. Considering these tips will help you offer just that with gentleness, kindness, and compassion.

Posted in Family Health

Emily Paulsen is a veteran health care writer with more than 20 years of experience. She is specifically interested in patient education, health information technology, health disparities, complementary medicine, and improving the health care experience for patients and professionals alike. Emily lives near Washington, D.C., and is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She is a board member of ASJA and co-chair of the D.C.-area chapter.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.