By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Eileen’s* story is one familiar to many older Americans and their adult children. About six months ago, she and her siblings — a sister living outside Hudson, N.Y., another sister in Rochester, and a brother in Boston — were coping with their mother’s declining health. Eileen took time off from work to drive to DeWitt from her home near Albany to be by her mom’s bedside, taking turns with her sisters to help provide the care their mother needed. And not only were they caring for her, but they were also filling her shoes by providing care for their father, an 87-year-old retired Navy commander recently diagnosed with early dementia.
“Mom had been doing everything — laundry, preparing meals, helping him to get dressed, driving him to appointments,” Eileen said.
When their mother passed away in October, Eileen and her siblings knew their father couldn’t be alone. So Eileen and her sisters were once again on the roads, spending alternating weekends with their father, preparing a week’s worth of meals, laying out clothes and cleaning up the house. They needed a long-term solution, but the prospect of finding an assisted living facility or moving dad in with one of them was incredibly overwhelming. And besides, dad wasn’t interested in moving. He understandably wanted to stay in the house he’d called home since 1975 and maintain a sense of independence.
“It was a stressful situation,” Eileen said.
Eileen and her family are not unique. An estimated 43.5 million adults in the U.S. are caregivers to a relative or friend over age 50; of those, 89 percent are caring for a relative and 55 percent are employed while doing so, according to a 2009 report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.
The same report identifies ensuring the care recipient’s safety at home and finding an assisted living facility, nursing home or home care agency for the recipient as caregivers’ top concerns. The report also indicates that most caregivers are in need of more information on these topics.
There are a number of agencies, organizations and government programs that exist to provide information and support for elders and their caregivers (see box). Eileen’s family found their solution in a program called Embracing Age. Launched by Franciscan Companies in Onondaga County in September, the private-pay elderlife membership program provides clients unlimited, 24-hour access to an elderlife specialist who acts as a personal assistant, connecting them with trusted, vetted vendors that can provide the comprehensive services medical and lifestyle needed to remain independent and safe in their homes.
An assessment by the elderlife specialist led to a “roadmap” of suggestions to help Eileen’s father stay where he wanted to be. Aides now visit him twice a day, he attends a senior day program five days a week and he even has a prescription dispenser that alerts him when it’s time to take his medication.
“He’s gotten stronger physically, and cognitively he’s a bit more alert,” Eileen said. “Finding this agency was a godsend.” Elieen also said that, as a caregiver, knowing that her father has the proper supports in place gives her peace of mind.
Eileen and her family are also taking steps to plan for their father’s future financially. Embracing Age connected Eileen and her family with Cora Alsante, a partner at the Syracuse law firm of Hancock and Estabrook, LLP, with a specialty in trusts and estates and elder law. Alsante is counseling the family on estate and long-term care planning, helping them to understand the legal and financial implications and to create an estate plan that will allow Eileen’s dad to get the care that best suits his needs.
Alsante has helped many families navigate the confusing landscape of long-term care planning for the elderly, a landscape, she said, that requires a guide.
“Elder law is an ever-changing world. It can be very confusing and it’s helpful to have someone who can lead you through it, someone who specializes in the area of law and stays on top of developments,” she said.
Baby Boomers will certainly contribute to developments in the field — they’re already beginning to create what will become a huge spike in the national aging population. The traditional model of nursing home care will not be able to support them all, so a shift toward in-home care and service delivery is likely the future of eldercare.
When it comes to the future, Alsante echoed a sentiment expressed by Embracing Age Executive Director Susan Clancy-Magley: be proactive. Prevent or minimize stress on the mental, emotional and physical health of both the elder and the caregiver by planning ahead and getting in front of problems. Having the appropriate support systems in place before they are actually necessary can ease the burdens on families, and can keep elders healthy and living idependently in the community.
“So often I see clients in crisis,” Alsante said. “Planning in the midst of a crisis leads to limited choices. Educate yourself and be prepared. Give yourself or your loved one the greatest possible options by planning ahead.”
For more information on Embracing Age, visit www.embracingage.org or call 1-855-MYHELP2.
*Last name withheld to protect subject’s privacy.