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A Caregiver’s Guide to Older Adult Independence

February is National Older Adult Independence Month

_CARE / A Cargiver's Guide

As a former co-caregiver, I remember the day when staff at my parent’s older adult apartment building found my mother stranded in the stairwell. Mom, weakening due to Leukemia, had boldly attempted to climb the eight flights of stairs. While previously doable, this was now far more challenging than she had thought. This is just one example of Mom’s determination, strong “can-do” attitude, and stubborn streak. Similar inflexibility can be shared by many other older adults – specifically those losing their independence. 

This sense can be justified. Advancing age and worsening health can prevent older adults from doing things they once could do. Family caregivers can expect to see and/or hear obstinance from aging older adults who are convinced that they can still do everything for themselves. Helping and supporting an older adult with independence loss can be a tricky thing but doing so is possible. Family caregivers must first understand an older adult’s concerns. Consider the following:

Facing the loss of once-prized independence can be a hard thing for an older adult.

DYNAMIC SHIFT
Whether it is being unable to climb eight flights of stairs or drive the car anymore, older adults can balk at opening up about losing their abilities. This can be an important topic for family discussions, but older adults may resist admitting any problems to their adult children.

Older adults may also be hesitant to explain that they are unable to prove themselves capable with common tasks. Human pride is a powerful thing… When older adults cannot complete once routine tasks or activities, it is understandable and reasonable that they would dislike the dynamic shift of now “leaning” on their adult children.

FEAR
Older adults may realize that they cannot do what they once could do and become increasingly worried about the months or years ahead. Recognizing a shift in abilities could mean recognizing aging, poorer health, and death – topics that are complex to think about.

ACCEPTANCE OF MENTAL/PHYSICAL DECLINE
Lost mental and physical capabilities may be equated with forgetfulness, confusion, and feelings of loss of dignity or  lessened value, as well as other associated stigmas of aging. Despite their sliding health, older adults may fight to continue with the status quo and try to convince others that “everything is just fine.”

Family caregivers can help older adults keep their greatly valued independence. Here are some recommendations:

SHOW PATIENCE
Understand. Sympathize. Show compassion. Facing the loss of once-prized independence can be a hard thing for an older adult. Family caregivers need to be gentle now to not belittle or further frustrate the older adult.

Despite their own sliding health, older adults may fight to continue with the status quo and try to convince others that “everything is just fine.”

HELP BUT DON'T TAKE OVER
Family caregivers can encourage the older adult to continue doing what is possible. It may be tempting for the family caregiver to step in and do everything that needs to be done, but family caregivers need to encourage older adults to continue doing what is still possible. Tasks that may seem simple to one person may not be so simple for another. Accomplishing something that might appear relatively simple can increase an older adult’s self-pride.

Family caregivers could look for options to make things easier. Velcro shoe straps are far more manageable for older hands and fingers than shoelaces. Even offers of help should be worded carefully… Family caregivers proposing to take an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment followed by an afternoon together will get a better response than family caregivers insisting that the older adult is not capable of driving him/herself.

MAKE SOME ADJUSTMENTS IN AN OLDER ADULT'S BATHROOM
Bathrooms can become increasingly risky. Even the most independent older adult can still slip and fall on a wet floor. A raised toilet seat, a toilet/shower seat, a handheld shower nozzle, non-skid floor mats, and grab bars for the walls can all make a bathroom safer. Family caregivers can find many other products designed to make things easier for an older adult at an older adult’s health supply store. These can include grabbers (to reach things on the floor or high shelves), adaptive clothing, wedge pillows, lift chairs, canes, walkers/scooters, and much more.

KEEP THE OLDER ADULT PHYSICALLY ACTIVE
Exercising results in strong muscles, increased endurance, and better balance – all of which help with independence. As the neighborhood pool will remain closed due to COVID-19, family caregivers could search out on-line fitness classes for their aging parents. Walks can be greatly beneficial for older adults. I walked with my father to keep him mobile, flexible, and strong. When the outside temperature dropped to being unbearable, we would loop around the floors inside his long-term care home instead.  

Facing the loss of one’s independence can be unsettling – if not terrifying – for an older adult. Family caregivers should do everything possible to empower older adults for their physical health, emotional well-being, and positive state of mind. While age can catch up with all of us, a family caregiver can be of great help and support to older adults wishing to keep themselves self-reliant. Remember that an independent older adult is a happier older adult. And a happier older adult also results in a happier family caregiver.



As a former co-caregiver, Rick Lauber helped and supported his aging parents (his mother had Parkinson's and Leukemia and his father had Alzheimer's). Rick learned that caregiving is challenging and used writing to personally cope. His stories became two books, Caregiver's Guide for Canadians and The Successful Caregiver's Guide - this second book is for American readers. Lauber continues to actively write about caregiving and caregiving-related issues for newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Learn more about Lauber and connect with him via www.ricklauber.com.
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