As we age, there are often many conflicting feelings that come with the process. Some may accept that that is life and make the best of it, while others may take it in a more negative way.
When in denial or unhappy with how life is progressing, some people may become more difficult, refuse help, and seem like they are giving up. Also, many elderly people live alone usually due to a spouse passing away, or never having married. This can create a feeling of loneliness which can lead to many more emotions.
How to Care for an Elderly Parent Who Lives Alone?
Your parent has taken care of you for most of your life, and now is coming a time for you to return the favour. You often feel responsible for keeping your loved ones safe and happy. For some parents, living on their own and having their own independence makes them happy, even if it may not be the safest thing anymore. As their health deteriorates with age, you may be worried about things like your parent falling, forgetting to take medications, or forgetting to turn off the stove.
These things are a part of life, so you just have to deal with problems as they arise. Be sure to check up on your parent often and do what you can to make them feel happy and safe. You may choose to ask friends or relatives to check up as well but be sure to not make it feel like they are hovering. Try and make it feel more like a social event. This also leads into trying to make sure your parent has a good social circle. Living alone can sometimes be lonely, which can cause some to isolate themselves socially.
Try to combat this by ensuring your parent has friends and family around that care about them. Encourage them to get involved in other social events. Other social networks may involve interactions with carers and health professionals, local shopkeepers, and neighbours.
Also encourage phone calls, video calls, or even writing letters to friends and family if transportation is becoming difficult. Adopting a pet is also a good way to combat loneliness as people usually find comfort in companionship. A low maintenance pet like a cat or a budgie bird is best, so your parent is not strained trying to care for it. You may also choose to help your parent care for the pet every so often, for example cleaning the cat litter for a pet cat, to make caring for it less strenuous.
Other things you can do include accompanying your parent on activities they enjoy, like shopping or gardening. It may be a nice thing for both of you to have a joint activity you work on together. This also helps your parent to continue on with their hobbies should they be limited in doing them in any way. If you are worried that your parent is a fall risk, you can talk with them about installing railings, ramps, or protecting sharp furniture edges.
How to Talk to Them and Understand What They Want?
Open communication is an important part of any relationship, so it is essential that you talk with your parent to understand what they want and what they may be feeling. Sometimes elderly people may not understand the risks of living alone, or they may simply not care.
Be sure to have this conversation in a lighthearted way so that your parent can understand your worries for them. Ask them about the things they enjoy doing, and how you can help if they struggle to do these things now. Make sure to not be on them too much, while still caring for them, about things you may deem improper.
For example, one blind patient said he likes to leave things on the floor so that it causes him to be more careful when walking. While it may appear messy to others, this was done internationally to help himself. Also ensure that your parent has loved ones around, as sometimes they may not equate living alone with loneliness although it often leads to it. Always be sure to make them feel loved and important, as sometimes elderly people may feel secondary to others because they may feel of less use to society.
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What May be Their Fears or Concerns?
It is also important to talk to your parent about their feelings and what they are concerned about. Many times, elderly people value their independence and do not want to feel like they are losing their freedom or losing control over their life.
In this case, help your parent to use different assistive technologies, social support networks, or invest themselves in hobbies to keep this feeling of independence while staying safe. Getting stuck in a wheelchair is another thing they may fear, again as this would rob them of their independence in a way. Sometimes in assisted living facilities the staff will request their patients to be wheeled around instead of walking to reduce risks, even if they can still walk. This is not always the best option as they may be safer physically, but it can have a poor effect on their mentality.
They may also fear becoming lonely and feel disconnected with others because of not feeling needed or feeling like they are not part of society anymore. This may be especially relevant for those with dementia, as they may feel more misunderstood. Also, with dementia patients, they may recognize their memory loss leaving them fearful and frustrated over it. Many elderlies who live alone may have lost their spouse, which can sometimes make them feel depressed and useless without their other half. Some fears may come with living alone as well, like the fear of someone breaking in. They may also fear being alone in case of an emergency. For example, if they fall and cannot get up on their own and cannot reach the phone, they may fear being stuck waiting for someone to find them.
Many older people as well feel that they are too old to do things, like meet new people or continue on with their hobbies. This may lead them to stop doing the things they enjoy. Also, with age, the parent usually becomes more dependent on the child or whoever is caring for them, and they may feel like a burden.
Living Independently vs. Moving to a Care Facility
If you feel your parent is not safe living alone anymore, it may be time to talk with them about moving to a care facility. This is often a difficult conversation to have. The best way to increase the odds of your parent accepting this kind of help should it come to it, is to have a plan in place for long term care ahead of time.
This can be done through living wills, trusts, or power of attorney. An assisted living facility is defined as “a form of housing arrangement that provides some assistance with activities of daily living.” Some of these activities include dressing, bathing, mobility, and personal hygiene. And while assisted living aids in many things, it is not to the same extent as a nursing home. If you feel that it may be time to have this conversation with your parent, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your parent have poor personal hygiene?
- Do they get lost going places?
- Do they have lots of unopened mail?
- Do you notice strange changes in their home? Like things being in very odd places for example.
- Are they suddenly losing weight?
- Are they at risk of falling and injuring themselves?
- Do they need assistance bathing?
- Can they hold a cup without shaking and are they able to feed themselves?
- Is a walker or wheelchair required for mobility? And, are they able to move without one?
- Are they confused? What is their mental state like?
If you answered yes to many of these questions, it may be time to consider moving your parent to a care facility for their safety and overall well-being.
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What to Do if They Refuse Care?
If your elderly parent refuses care, the first step to take is to accept and reassure their feelings. Talk to them about what they are feeling and why, and why they are acting the way they are. Try spending more time with them allowing for free, open communication between yourself and them.
Ask them about their preferences. It is best to ask one question at a time that allow for yes or no answers. At the same time, ensure to be straightforward and assertive while avoiding pushing, nagging, or ultimatums. If your parent is refusing care because they are frightened – possibly due to confusion – be sure to reassure them that they are safe and try again a few minutes later.
For parents who are forgetful, try creating a calendar or list with scheduled tasks, like a medication schedule with specific times. In more difficult cases, counseling may be required to help your parent show acceptance, be less confrontational, show less retaliation, and encourage independence.
There also may be cases where your parent is not refusing care altogether, just simply fighting the idea of living in an assisted living facility or nursing home. In this situation, the best thing you can do is to try and reason with them, explaining how them remaining living on their own may be unsafe or not so good for their mental well-being.
If your parent seems lonely or depressed, moving to an assisted care facility may help to improve that as they will be living amongst others possibly in similar situations, and be able to meet new people as well. This new social atmosphere can help fight loneliness, although they just might need a little push from those they trust to get there.
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Duane, F., Brasher, K., & Koch, S. (2013). Living alone with dementia. Dementia, 12(1), 123-136.
Levy, E. S. (2010). When to put a parent in assisted living or a nursing home. Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business, 2, 1.
Feinman, S., & Coon, R. H. (1983). The Effect of Status on the Evaluation of Behavior: Elderly, Adults, and Children Aged 5-65. Research on Aging, 5(1), 119-135.