February is Senior Independence Month. I bet you didn’t have that one on your calendar! Parents, friends, and relatives are aging better than before (outside of the Covid pandemic) and many are still living independently. While some seniors are still in their homes, many have moved into apartments, senior housing, assisted/independent living facilities, and a number of them have transitioned into nursing homes when their needs dictate a new level of care. According to Pew Research, 27% of adults over 60 years old in the U.S. live alone compared to 16% in 130 countries and territories around the world. Multi-generational families are more common outside of the United States, so there is built-in companionship and someone is always available if a need arises.
Just because our loved one took another trip around the sun, doesn’t mean it is time to take over their lives. There are times when living independently might not be safe, but for the majority who are managing quite nicely, a little help now and then may be appreciated.
Safety is the obvious #1 priority for our seniors. Once the safety needs are met, there are other needs: nutrition, health and wellness, social interactions, and finances. How do we address those, especially when we cannot be on-site with our elders, due to Covid restrictions or we live across the state or country?
Safety: If you are able to visit with your loved one in their home, take a quick check in each room. Remove tripping hazards such as throw rugs and electric cords crossing over traffic areas.
Look for fire hazards. Is a space heater too close to the upholstery? Frayed cords? Burners that won’t shut off? Does the heater/AC work optimally?
Fall prevention: repair broken steps (if they are in their own home). Check to make sure their walker, cane, and/or wheelchair are in good working order. Do they have to stand on their tippy toes to grab a heavy bowl, canister, or their favorite coffee mug?
Check the faucets so they turn off completely without running and overflowing the sink. Is their furnace/AC working optimally? Make sure their contact information is up to date with their medical alert systems. You can discreetly check these things when you are able to be inside their home. If they live nearby, stop in with a little treat now and then so you can get ‘eyes on’ them.
Nutrition: Is your loved one eating well? Have you noticed weight loss or gain? Do they have access to groceries? If you are unable to do the shopping for them, consider a grocery delivery service through one of the stores or companies in the business of delivering food. Maybe Meals on Wheels is an option for them. If they aren’t eating well, ask about their dentures. Ill-fitting dentures will prevent people from eating healthy foods that require some chewing, leading to skipping out on nutritional meals.
Health and Wellness: Is getting out for fresh air an option? Are they getting exercise by doing a few laps around the halls in the warmth and security of their building? Fall risk can be lessened if their muscles are getting used daily. Have they had an annual exam with their medical provider? A yearly visit, or more if warranted, is the time to discuss medications and assess them for any potential cognitive issues. Most medical offices will allow one person along during the visit, even during this pandemic. Take notes and make sure your loved one understands any changes to medications or tests that were ordered. Leave them with simple directions – the medical office can feel overwhelming to many seniors and they may not remember key points of their visit.
Social Interactions: Does he/she like to play games? Physical distancing during the pandemic prevents us from sitting around the table playing Scrabble or cards, but there are numerous online games available if they have internet access. A puzzle, a word game book, knitting or other needlework…think of ways to keep their brain engaged, even if done as a solo activity. If your person is even a little bit tech ‘savvy’, they may enjoy Zoom/Facetime calls with far-flung family and friends. Help them set up an email account and find their friends online so they can connect.
Finances: If your senior is willing and able to manage their own finances, great! They may appreciate you looking over the checkbook occasionally. For many seniors, money matters are very private. It doesn’t hurt to ask them if they feel comfortable taking care of the numbers. For now. They may need help in the future, but handling a checkbook can be very empowering for some, especially if they had to learn it later in life.
Taking a few steps to ensure the safety and well-being of your senior will allow them to enjoy their life and maintain independence and give you peace of mind.
If you suspect elder abuse (physical, financial, emotional), talk to the facility administrator or home healthcare agency for an action plan; you may have to remove your senior from harms’ way. Minnesota has a website to report vulnerable adult abuse. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has a website available to report abuse. You can contact them here.