The aging journey today is much different than for previous generations. We are living longer. Many are living longer with diseases that just a few years ago shortened life expectations. The number of people over the age of 65, living in the United States, surpassed 46 million in 2014. This number is projected to more than double by 2060 (www.prb.org). It is no wonder then that there is focus on how our senior population lives. Through research, we know more about aging than ever before. We have more options to ensure our aging journey is all it can be, all that we want it to be; for ourselves and for our parents.
A Personal Journey
One night, in 2010, my father placed a plastic bowl in the oven. He was hungry and believed he was cooking something to eat. My mother was asleep and awoke to a blaring smoke detector. Fortunately, the fire department responded quickly. Suddenly, or not, we knew they could no longer live independently.
My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years before the oven fire. Prior to the diagnosis, my parents had moved closer to me. As the nurse in the family, I could help get them to the care they needed, with the providers I trusted, in my hometown. Though still independent, there were signs of looming need for assistance. However, I had been treading water, hoping time was on our side. Hoping the usual medications would buy us time before the inevitable arrived.
My parents weren't ready, I wasn’t ready, and my family wasn’t ready.
I and my siblings, six of us in total, worked full time. Each of us had busy lives filled with obligations. Who would care for my parents? Where? At what cost? Could they, or we, afford assisted living? Would Medicare and their supplemental insurance help? What were their wishes? We had so many questions. As we began to get answers, more questions arose. It was clear, we were not prepared for this. Our parents had not prepared.
My mother had open heart surgery many years previous. I knew what the journey would be like. I am a nurse. I knew what the risks were, what to expect post-surgery, and what she’d need after discharge from the hospital. Home health nurses and physical therapists came into the home. When a stair rail was needed, my husband installed it. When prescriptions needed to be picked up there was no shortage of family members to go get them. Her post op recovery was relatively smooth.
My father’s journey with Alzheimer’s was very different. As a nurse, I could handle the tasks of care. I knew where to go to get answers. I knew what care my father needed and all that it entailed, or so I thought. I was my parent's designated medical power of attorney. My siblings looked to me for concrete answers regarding their healthcare.
However, as a daughter, I was emotional. I needed help too.
Together we needed to figure out how to move forward. We had so much to consider and with each step forward we had so much more to learn.
Living Wills and Decisions
We quickly realized that my parent’s living wills addressed the eventual destination and little, if any, of their aging journey. We had never discussed how they wished to live if they could not do so independently. My mother was intent upon staying on her own. However, she had struggled to care for my father much less herself. Her heart had begun to fail. My father, when asked, said he wanted to live with me should my mother pass first. Of course I knew I should honor his wish.
I wanted to honor his wish. However, I knew I would fail him.
When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, our Geriatric Nurse Practitioner asked me what our plan was for when he could no longer live independently. I immediately responded with “I’ll move him and my mother into my home.” She strongly advised against doing so. In retrospect, I knew she was right. The burden would be too much to bear for my husband and teen-aged children.
In 2010, we placed my father in assisted living. My mother, who was still somewhat independent, moved in with my family and I. By May of 2011, my father had been moved to a nursing home. My mother passed just two weeks later. In September, my father passed away. The journey had been hard. The destination brought peace.
As adults we may have many questions regarding our future. How do I age gracefully? How do I stay healthy as I age? How do I plan for my elder years? When should I retire? Can I afford to retire? What will I do with my time in retirement? With each new ache or pain, each milestone achieved, the birth of a grandchild, or the death of a friend or loved one, these questions become more relevant. We begin to question who will care for us when we no longer can. However, you will likely have to answer these questions for your parents first.
Seek Answers and Knowledge
So, as oft quoted, the journey is more important than the destination. Our journeys are individual and very personal. However, anything that can help make the journey easier is important. Start the journey by talking with your parents and loved ones regarding their wishes as they age. Make sure your loved ones know your wishes. Document those wishes; your loved ones and yours. Knowledge is power. Seek out resources. Know where to go for help and don’t be afraid to ask for it.