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10 Things Every Family Should Know About Aging With Dignity and Independence

If you have a loved one who may need your help one day, start thinking about these issues now

By The SCAN Foundation | November 19, 2012
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The SCAN Foundation is an independent, non-profit public charity devoted to transforming health care for seniors in ways that encourage independence and preserve dignity.

Aging with dignity and independence is the ability to live life to its fullest in the place you call home, regardless of age, illness or disability. This ideal is important because many Americans have loved ones who are aging, whether it is a spouse, neighbor, parent or other family member. Those closest to us may soon need some assistance and care to continue to live in their communities and among friends and family, and 70 percent of people over 65 will need long-term care at some point in their lives. To better prepare, here are 10 things to know if you are providing help to an older loved one.
 
1. You are not alone. Nearly 67 million Americans provide assistance to a spouse, parent, relative or even a neighbor today. And every day for the next 18 years, about 8,000 baby boomers will turn 65. As individuals grow older, they are more likely to need assistance that will enable them to live with dignity and independence in their homes and communities. The implications of this change are being felt in families and communities across the nation. Start preparing today by talking with your family about what aging with dignity means to all of you, and encourage loved ones to ask for help if they need it.

(MORE: 10 Signs That an Older Person May Need Help)

2. Different people need different kinds of support. Older people with health conditions and difficulties with daily activities have a variety of needs, like preparing meals, getting in and out of bed, getting dressed, going to the bathroom or going to the grocery or the doctor. All of these routine activities that we often take for granted as part of our everyday lives are vital to allowing individuals to age with dignity and independence. To help devise a plan that works for you and your loved ones, there is a broad network of support that can provide information, counseling, and even free services. To get you started, see our list of 10 Resources to Help Prepare for Aging With Dignity and Independence.
 
3. Support that family members give counts. Family caregivers make up the backbone of support for older Americans. There are primarily three important ways that families can help an older loved one get the support they need. The first is physical or hands-on care, like direct help with life’s daily activities. Second, families can provide financial support, from helping a loved one manage his or her money to directly paying for physical care. Third, families can provide emotional support, especially as health issues become more complicated. A little bit of care from family can go a long way toward helping loved ones stay in their homes and communities as their abilities change.
 
4. Long-term care is expensive. Paying for daily support services can add up. In 2011, the average cost of having a part-time aide come to your home averaged about $21,840 per year, and the average cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home was $78,110. Such costs are often unaffordable for the majority of the nation’s middle-class families.

(MORE: How to Find the Best Residential Care)

5. Medicare doesn’t pay. Many people mistakenly believe that Medicare will pay for long-term services and support. The reality is that Medicare pays only for short-term rehabilitative care. Most people will require assistance at some point after age 65, for an average of three years. You or your loved one may need to pay out of pocket and spend all of your assets to qualify for help through Medicaid, a medical assistance program financed through state and federal dollars.
 
6. Talk to your loved ones. Planning ahead is important. Do not wait for an emergency to start discussing your loved ones' care needs. To ensure that they receive the best care possible, that honors their wishes and desires, begin a dialog now. It is important to maintain this conversation over time, even if it gets difficult, as circumstances can change. Our list of 10 Conversations to Plan for Aging With Dignity and Independence can help. Planning ahead means something different for everyone depending on their circumstances. You and your loved ones might set aside money to pay for future care or look into long-term care insurance. You might work together to build a list of important contacts that is kept in an accessible place. Or you might help your loved one identify a surrogate decision maker in case they are unable to make decisions on their own.
 
7. Talk with your loved one’s doctors. People’s health needs can change over time. There are a number of important conversations to have with your loved one’s doctors to make sure he or she is getting the right care at the right time and from the right professional. Discussions about treatment plans, medications, changing symptoms or the loss of ability to do regular activities are important. For a thorough list, see our 10 Things to Discuss With Your Doctor to Promote Aging With Dignity and Independence.
 
8. Build a circle of support. Your loved one may have identified a surrogate decision maker in case he or she is unable to make health decisions independently, so be sure to find out who that person is. There may also be others who are counted on to help make important decisions, like attorneys, financial planners, insurance providers, family members and others. It is important to engage all people involved in the decision-making process to help honor your loved one’s wishes and desires. This is never an easy task, but it is important to avoid rushed decisions that can lead to unanticipated consequences. The sooner you begin building this network of support, the better.
 
(MORE: Building a Network to Look Out for Your Parents)

9. We all want to age with dignity, choice and independence. This means being able to live life to the fullest, regardless of our daily abilities or physical limitations. Find out how your loved one defines living with dignity, choice and independence, and make that part of your master plan for securing care and services for him or her. If you are providing support to a loved one, make sure that you are receiving enough emotional support and rest, so that everyone’s needs are met.
 
10. Your voice is important. Decisions are being made at the state and federal level that could impact the services that are available to you and your loved ones. It is important for you to stay informed, get involved and take action. Learn about what is being done to ensure that as Americans grow older, a healthy network of support and services is available for those who need it. Talk with your local, state and federal officials about what kind of support you want as you grow older. You can also find updates on our website or by "liking" our Facebook page.
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