Dear Carol: I’m an only surviving adult child. My parents, who are in their late 70s, have been healthy and active all of their lives. They have no trouble keeping track of their medications. They haven’t fallen and don’t have memory problems beyond what you’d expect with age. Even then, as I see the years pass I know that one day I’ll be a caregiver in that I’ll be making decisions for them. How do I prepare? — Gerald
Dear Gerald: Your parents have been blessed with good health and long lives but, as you’ve acknowledged, few people live with great health until the end of their days. It’s smart and caring of you to want to prepare for the time when they will likely need assistance.
First, it’s essential that you discuss the legal work. Even if your parents have had powers of attorney for health and finances drawn up, these documents need to be re-examined routinely. They likely have each other listed first as their appointed agent, but it’s possible that at this stage of their lives they may want to include you as the alternate if they haven’t done so already. Also, their wills should be written to address what they want done when one spouse dies as well as what they want to happen when they are both gone.
From there, my advice is to have an open, ongoing dialogue with them about their preferences as they age. If you see them often, make it a natural part of the conversation from time to time. Ask questions about how your grandparents lived their last years. As an alternative, asking questions about their friends who may be facing the same issues as they face can be a good opener for a conversation about your parents’ choices.
Close couples often become like one in their support of each other, filling in gaps in memory and abilities. That’s good. Honor this as part of their marriage. Try to be aware of important changes, though, being careful not to be overly intrusive or overbearing. If your parents stay cognitively sound, respect that fact though you can invite them to ask for your input at any time.
If they are still in their own home and want to stay there, you could investigate home upgrades for elder safety. You also may want to look into retirement-living options with graduated care so that if one spouse needs assisted living and the other needs nursing services they can remain in the same complex. Once you have information on some viable options, you can work the information into the ongoing, flexible conversation.
It may be helpful for you to become familiar with a new government website at aging.gov. Here you’ll find your parents’ state listed and from that point you’ll see that state’s resources. You can explore links at your leisure so that when the time comes that you need helpful resources you’ll be prepared.
Educate yourself about end-of-life care, as well, including how far to take treatments and when to look at palliative care or hospice. Talk with your parents to make certain that they understand the different options.
Most of all, reassure your parents that you want to comply with what they would choose as much as reality will allow. Don’t make promises that you might not be able to keep, but assure them that you’ll do your best to follow their wishes.