It always makes me sad to hear the families of an elder say “Mom made me promise to never put her in a nursing home”. That is simply a promise that most families today cannot keep. If a caring son or daughter finds that they have to break that promise, they may feel guilty for the rest of their lives. Mom probably asked for that promise because the nursing homes she remembers were dark, institutional places which would be considered substandard in America today. Today’s family structure and the financial challenges of elder care, make facility living a very common choice. When an elder shows signs of not being able to perform the basic activities of daily living, families or concerned professionals must step in. It is actually against most state laws for a professional to be aware of an elder in trouble without taking some reasonable action to secure their safety. There are many indicators that an elder is no longer safe at home alone. The basic litmus test is to ask yourself is: “Could this person save him or herself if their home were on fire? Would they be able to call 911 and communicate their exact location? If left alone for any period of time are they at risk for physical abuse or financial exploitation? Do they have the skills and resources to meet their daily hygiene and nutritional needs? The answer is “NO” for many American elders who live home alone.
Independence vs. Isolation
Many of my elderly clients who were trying so hard to maintain their independence by living alone at home actually maintained nothing more than an isolated existence punctuated by the occasionally call or visit from friends and family. This type of isolation was also coupled with medication errors or abuse, self neglect and unsanitary housekeeping. A person living in this situation will often “bloom like a flower” in the right retirement facility environment. It is amazing what three hot meals a days, social interaction, clean sheets and regular administration of medications can do for a person’s mind, body and spirit. A person who lives alone is more likely to fall and lay alone on the floor for days without being found. A person, who lives alone may make poor choices such as keeping, (or worse,) spoiled food in the refrigerator. If a person lives alone, there are many signs of illness that no one will notice during sporadic short visits. Medical appointments may be missed and prescriptions left unfilled. Many people feel that they are honoring their aging loved one by letting them live alone, even though all the tell tale signs of self neglect are apparent. There is no honor or dignity in being found on the floor after one has laid in their own excrement for three days. Unfortunately, many families will wait for this type of incident before insisting on either home health care or facility placement. If an elder is physically or verbally abusive to family and care givers, they are much more likely to be left alone to make their own decisions, regardless of how dysfunctional their situation may be. Elders with difficult personalities are many times more likely to be abused by caregivers. They need more supervision, not less.
American Family Dynamics and the Pressures of Today’s World
I hear people say “Americans don’t take care of their elders like other countries do”. Well that is not my experience. The adult children who consult with Geriatric Care Manager or other eldercare professionals are very concerned about their parents. They love them and they want the best care their money can buy. That’s the clincher: what their money can buy. In America, caregivers, maids, etc,, are expensive. Perhaps in another country where slave labor is commonplace, people can afford plenty of care. But in this country it costs $12.00 per hour (or more) for a home health aide. At eight hours per day, that is $96.00 per day. That is $2,880 per month or $34,560 per year – more than the average working American earns per year. The average woman gets a social security check of less than $500.00 per month. Do the math and you will soon see that unless you are wealthy, many people cannot afford to keep their elders in their own home with a part time caregiver or even in their children’s home with a caregiver.
Now couple this financial problem with another very real problem. Most middle income women in their fifties, who are caring for their elderly parents, are also trying to hold down a job, help their young-adult children and maintain a marriage. If a middle income woman stops working to care for her parents, she and her husband either cannot pay their bills or they must significantly reduce their standard of living. I know a few husbands who are fifty-something and feel they have worked too hard and too long to have their dreams of retirement evaporate because someone else’s needs are suddenly more important than their own. Now that Americans have come to grips with the concept that it takes two incomes to live well in this country, they are more determined than ever to have a retirement. Paying $35,000 per year for a caregiver can take a huge chunk out of the retirement savings. Frankly, most people couldn’t afford to do it even if they wanted to. Because most Americans’ net worth is in the equity of their home, selling the family home is the most common way to finance elder care services. If the family home sells for $100,000.00 and the average cost of an Assisted Living Residence is $36,000.00 per year, an elder can afford to live in that Assisted Living for 2.7 years. Coincidently, the average amount of time a person lives in an Assisted Living before moving on to a nursing home is 2.5 years.
Many adult children, who do have the desire and financial means to bring their elders to live with them, still cannot. They cannot because the medical or psychological needs of the elder are beyond their capacity to manage. For example, if Grandma is sweet and docile by day, but “sundowns” or grows agitated as evening falls, this poses a difficult problem for the caring family. When some people experience dementia or other medical issues, they may stay awake all night. They sometimes wander out of doors or rummage through drawers and closets. This behavior will keep the whole family awake at night. If a working family cannot sleep at night, this situation will become intolerable very quickly. Some adult children have been raised by violent, aggressive parents who are now violent aggressive elders. Children who have been raised under these conditions need not feel obligated to bring their parents to live with them, despite the pressure they may get from outsiders who do not know the real story.
Elders and their families who are trying to make difficult choices about elder care benefit from a professional assessment from a geriatric specialist. Professional care managers can offer an objective opinion based on a clinical evaluation of the physical and cognitive status of the elder. Physicians, hospital case managers, facility admissions coordinators and social workers can also offer advice about appropriate placement of an elder or even suggest how to set up services in the home to best meet the elder’s needs.
Home Health Care – Stay Home without Being Alone
At the very least, any elder living alone should have a medical alert system. This is a necklace or wrist band with a panic button that can be pushed in case of emergency. If the button is pushed a dispatch center receives the signal and makes and attempt to communicate with the elder through a speaker placed in the home. If the elder needs help or does not respond to attempts to communicate, emergency services will be dispatched to the home. Many services will also contact friends and family to notify them that assistance is needed. A good candidate for this device is one WHO DOES NOT have memory loss as memory loss makes it difficult to learn to operate new appliances.