Taking Care of Your Parents: Safeguarding Their Health and Safety

Much of the decline that many people assume defines aging can be avoided or postponed.

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It's now known that regular exercise can protect older people against disease and make them functionally younger by 10 or 15 years. Indeed, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association have recently published exercise guidelines for seniors that call for several workouts a week. Some additional precautions:

6. Work with the pharmacy. "Poor medication management is the No. 1 reason for leaving an independent living situation and going into supervised care," says Elinor Ginzler, coauthor of Caring for Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide. Your father may see five different specialists yet fill all prescriptions in one place, so his pharmacist could be the only provider with an eye on all his meds; befriend this point person. Since aging alters drug metabolism, ask about side effects your father should look for, including those that could arise if prescribed meds interact with any over-the-counter drugs or supplements he's taking. Most pharmacies can repackage pills that should be taken together in a "calendar card," an easy-to-use blister pack.

7. Get help behind the wheel. One of the messiest challenges for adult children and their parents to navigate is the driving question. Sometimes a few more years of safe driving are realistic—"if problems are caught early enough," says Dannielle Sherrets, manager of AAA's traffic safety research and analysis. AAA and AARP offer classes for "mature operators" that can yield car insurance discounts. AAA also has started CarFit, a program that invites seniors to bring their vehicles in for ergonomic adjustment; staff may recommend gadgets like mirror add-ons or tools to help arthritic wrists turn a key with less pain.

For parents, the idea of stopping can be daunting and depressing, and it can inspire the most vehement, stubborn refusal. But bodies stiffen, reaction time diminishes, and cognitive abilities may wane. When driving gets dangerously erratic, a serious talk about hanging up the keys becomes necessary. If met with resistance, enlist authorities like the parent's doctor or the DMV—flunking a vision or driving test won't get a license renewed. But resentment is sometimes unavoidable. Marion Somers's father kept deflecting her efforts to talk about his dwindling skills. Her concern for his safety—and that of others—eventually won out. Though it drew ire, "I sold his car for $1,700, and that became his transportation fund," says Somers, a gerontologist and author of Elder Care Made Easier.

8. Draw up the documents. All adults—but especially older ones—are advised to designate a healthcare power of attorney, also known as a healthcare proxy, which is the person to make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you're unable; create a living will, which (unlike a will that designates assets after death) details such things as the circumstances in which you wouldn't want a feeding tube to keep you alive; and consider talking to a doctor to decide if you want a do-not-resuscitate order, which instructs healthcare providers in the event the heart or lungs stop. A state-specific healthcare proxy and living will can be downloaded free from www.caringinfo.org. And a certified elder law attorney can help you fill them out correctly, says Lawrence Davidow, past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. A common pitfall: A parent lists two children as proxies. In some states, including New York, that voids the document unless one child is listed as "primary" and the other as the alternate. Make copies of the completed documents and share with family, healthcare professionals, and even close friends. "The worst thing you can do is execute these and stick them in a drawer," says Ginzler.

15 Ways to Take Care of Your Elderly Parents:
1-5:  Preparing the Home
9-12:  Protecting Their Finances
13-15:  Keeping Them Socially Connected

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