This week, we once again celebrate our country's independence. But freedom from another nation's rule, or the dictates of a king, is just one kind of liberation. There's also a more intimate type crucial to our parents as they seek to grow older in their own home and community as long as they can, while maintaining the ability to get around, shop and take care of themselves to the greatest extent possible.
Adult children can mark the Fourth of July by taking some time over the extra-long holiday weekend to consider how much independence their parents have today and what steps can be taken now, as a family, to ensure they retain it in the years ahead. Consider these questions:
Can They Get Around? Few steps are more symbolic of the loss of independence than giving up one's car keys. If you have a parent who can no longer drive, he or she may face isolation and the loss of access to regular activities, potentially disrupting their routines and leading to depression.
You can help make sure the loss of a car doesn't mean a loss of mobility by arranging alternative transportation options. Help parents scout such services now, before they're needed. Many municipalities offer low-cost rides for seniors; churches, non-profit organizations and volunteer groups will drive people at low or no cost; and private, for-cost services are springing up nationwide to meet what's expected to be a rapidly increasing demand for elderly transportation.
Are They in the Right Community? The vast majority of us want to age in place in our own homes, but that's easier to do in communities that are well suited to the needs of a growing senior population. The federal Administration on Aging estimates about 17 percent of Americans over 65 already live in such places, often called naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs. Defined as a localized area where at least 40 percent of the population is older than 60 and lives in their own homes, NORCs can take many forms, but the most successful actively facilitate independence through services like health-care management; education, recreation and volunteer opportunities; adult day care; meals; transportation; home care; legal and financial advice; home safety improvements; mental health counseling and disease management.
Services like these are increasingly provided through initiatives like the Village Movement, an informal national network of communities launched in Boston in 2001. The principle is simple: Residents in a given community, often a NORC, pay dues — the average is about $435 a year — into a non-profit membership organization that provides access to services that support aging in place. Some villages are a few blocks wide, others encompass large rural areas. But each is autonomous and determines its services based on member needs. The average villager is a 74-year-old woman who takes advantage of such services as home-safety modifications, dog walking, tech support and visiting nurses and care managers. Visit the Village Movement website to find out if your parents live in an area with access to a village.
Will Their Home Be Safe Years From Now? No one can remain independent for long in a home that cannot sustain him or her safely. If your parent's home is unsafe, it's crucial to be proactive to make modifications or repairs or find a new residence nearby that better meets their needs. "Much of our present housing stock is a poor fit for a nation where so many people are aging," former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros wrote in a Next Avenue column. "For years, city officials and remodeling contractors have organized and certified renovation packages to weatherize homes. The need to make existing houses more suitable for older persons should prompt a similar approach to create 'life span homes.'"
If your parents need home modifications today, it's worth starting projects now. Tear down walls to create a more open, easier-to-navigate floor plan; bury wires; switch to sinks with sufficient knee space (to allow seated use) and a curbless shower (to ensure continued easy access); lower kitchen counters; and install brighter lights that can be operated by remote control. Any of these steps can make life easier for a parent in the years ahead.
Is Someone Looking Out for Them? Many adult children live hundreds of miles from their parents. But even if they're nearby, the demands of work and child care keep many from checking up on parents as often as they'd like. Phone calls and Skype chats are useful, but older parents aging in place benefit more from regular, live check-ins that allow friends or relatives to make sure they and their homes are in good shape.
If you give it some thought, you can probably think of multiple local candidates for the job. It could be a relative, a neighbor, an old friend, someone from a volunteer group, like Meals on Wheels, or even a regular delivery person. Last February, a Domino's Pizza delivery woman in Memphis noticed that an 82-year-old regular hadn't called in an order for three days. She took a drive by, discovered the woman had taken a fall and called 911 to save her life.
Get to know the people who have regular contact with your parents and share your contact information with them. You may find they're willing to act as your eyes and ears on the ground.
Do They Have Companionship? For older people living alone who can handle the responsibility, owning a pet can be an ideal way to stay physically and mentally active and engaged. "An animal provides another focus, a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to exercise, unconditional love and a social lubricant," says Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri. "Animals can reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation."
According to her center's research, Johnson says, pet owners take better care of themselves, rebound faster from illness, maintain lower blood pressure and have a lower risk of heart disease. (See Next Avenue's guide to some of the best pet breeds for parents aging in place.)
(MORE: The Perils of Aging Alone)
What Will Happen in an Emergency? We all want to help our parents meet their goal of aging in place independently as long as they can. One way to ensure that can happen is to put systems in place to help them in an emergency. New home-monitoring systems are becoming more advanced each year. Some, using technology like that of Microsoft's XBox Kinect game system, have the ability to detect changes in activity, problems with gait and falls and can instantly alert adult children and 911 in case of an emergency.
Personal Emergency Response Systems, or PERS, have been with us for years as the push-button devices made famous by that widely spoofed late-night commercial. But they've advanced as well, with more sophisticated sensors designed not just to detect falls but to avoid the first fall by detecting obstacles and changes in walking patterns. Other pendants are meant not just for home use but for outdoor wear, an emergency aid for active parents out for a walk, hike or bike ride.
"Your loved one wants independence," Next Avenue columnist Sherri Snelling says, "but, as our founding fathers found, independence can only be achieved with some sacrifice. Losing a bit of privacy to be safer at every moment will help both you and your loved one sleep more soundly."