My Loved One Isn’t Safe Living Alone Anymore—Now What?

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I recently received a call from Paul, a successful businessman in his sixties, begging for my advice regarding his parents. He was at the hospital with them after his elderly father had accidentally burned the house down. Paul had tried for years to convince them to move to assisted living or accept a professional in-home caregiver. A couple of times he even had everything lined up, but they’d always cancel at the last minute. I felt so bad for him and suggested it might be best to wait until his parents recovered from the smoke inhalation before trying, once again, to get them the help they needed. Paul burst into tears at my suggestion. “I can’t wait!” he cried. “My father already hired a contractor to rebuild the house. Jacqueline, my parents are 90 and 92!”

I wish I had the iron-clad solution to this problem. So many people are dealing with parents who want so badly to remain independent but won’t accept the necessary help that will allow them to do just that. Since our civil rights are (fortunately) very strong in the United States, unless an individual is legally proven incompetent (a difficult process that is especially hard at the beginning stages of dementia), they cannot be forced to do anything against their will.

The best way to increase the odds of a parent accepting help later in life is by starting conversations about long-term care early on—long before their health and cognitive function start to decline. When a person’s wishes have been discussed openly for years (and properly documented with living wills, trusts, and powers of attorney), the transition is far less traumatic when they must be acted on.

The problem is that so many people never get up the nerve to broach such a sensitive subject, or every time they try, the parent gets mad or goes into denial. Either way, nothing ever gets clarified or resolved. If this sounds like your situation and you’ve been avoiding having “The Talk,” realize that when a crisis like Paul’s strikes and you have to step in, you’ll have a lot of last-minute convincing to do.

Health and Safety Are the Top Priorities

Take a moment to remember when you were the child. Wouldn’t your parent(s) have done everything in their power to keep you safe, no matter how much you protested? As hard as it is, you have to accept that your roles have been reversed. You are now the responsible party who must persist in making sure your loved ones are safe.

When you know in your heart that your parent(s) cannot remain safely in their home any longer, don’t let demands, protests and pleas cloud your better judgment. You know what they need. Don’t let them end up a sad statistic by waiting for a middle-of-the-night phone call about a broken hip, medication overdose or car accident. These things happen all the time.

Bring in Back-Up

If you don’t seem to be getting anywhere talking to your parent(s) by yourself, it’s important to pull out all stops. Ask relatives, friends, clergy, healthcare professionals/doctors, and anyone else whom they respect to assist with convincing them it’s time for a change. It can be a simple call or an in-person visit to express their concern and share words of encouragement and support. Just try to avoid creating a sense that their friends and family are pressuring them into a decision. This will only create more resistance and resentment.

Do your best to collaborate with your parent(s) and find solutions that everyone can live with. Research all available options and discuss them together. If your loved ones are part of the decision, they’ll be more likely to get on board.

Jacqueline Marcell is a former television executive who was so compelled by caring for her elderly parents (both with early Alzheimer's not diagnosed for over a year) she wrote "Elder Rage." She is also an international speaker on elder care and host of the popular Internet radio program "Coping With Caregiving."

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58 Comments

There are solutions! There are alternatives. You are not trapped, but hurting. And I hurt for you reading about your stress level. Senior services abound. Keep calling and asking until you find one that's right for your specific situation. It may take awhile, but there's lots to choose from. Have a "friend" come to visit, who can evaluate your parent, and validate you. There are visiting doctors and nurses, and social services available. Being dead won't help your suffering parent who needs you to stay strong. Help is available. If I could give you a hug right now, I would. And take you to lunch. There is hope even in our darkest hours and the deepest valleys. This too, will pass, and the sun will shine again. There's legal things you can do, too. I have court-appointed Guardianship and Conservatorship. I felt like "Chicken Little" standing before a judge asking for "permission" to help my parents. I made my best case with the help of a Physician, and took over everything. Legally. It's not the best case scenario, but the only way to go for us.

There are also free legal services available for seniors. I contacted a Senior Center in my city, and they backed me up and offered me resources and counsel. Document everything you see, and everything that's going on in the home. I even tape record my parent's conversations, "just in case," because sometimes that's all I have to "prove" my point, as it can often be their word against mine. Tough love. We are supposed to serve others. Some days are harder than others. Hang in there and seek professional guidance. Guard your heart, and know someone is praying for you.
what does "refused help" mean? not sure if you mean the sick man refused help or his son refused to help. sounds like the man called his son asking for help, so he was not refusing help, but asking for it.

don't know if this applies in that specific case, but in general, and in my opinion:

it is the childrens' responsibility to care for their parents. no one said it would be easy or convenient or fun. i'm in favor of familial support laws and i think they should be enforced automatically without anyone having to sue to start it. like child protection laws, neglect should bring an instant response and severe penalties, both criminal and financial.

of course the situation is different with parents. it is more difficult to force them to accept the help they need. or is it not so much the help they need, but the help the children are willing to give? rather than quitting a job and taking care of a parent, many choose to take care of themselves instead and then complain when the parent has problems.

they come from a different generation when multiple generations were expected to live in the same home together and take care of each other as needed. failure to care for your parents and extended family was considered shamefull and disgraceful behavior. they still expect that now, and reasonably so. think how much money you could save by combining households. you would have one home for everyone, probably paid for. we would have none of the foreclosure and backruptcy issues that are plaguing americans now.

These are basic human life patterns: you are raised by your parents, you have children, you care for your parents, then your children take care of you. all other things (jobs, houses, fun, convenience, cars, boats, vacations, etc.) are totally irrelevant. These things are the candy after dinner, not the whole meal. With the lessons we are teaching our children now, how many of us will be well-cared for in our old age? very few, i think.

And just so no one says i don't know what i'm talking about... I care for my 91 year old mother with no assistance whatsoever. my older brother and sister have chosen to pursue their own lives and totally disregard all responsibility to their mother. My nephew lives just a few miles away, but visits on Christmas, some years. I gave up a well-paid professional career, all forms of insurance, financial stability, a decent car, medical care for myself, etc., etc., etc. Five years ago I could have literally gone anywhere in the world and lived my life any way I pleased. But my mother needed help.

She was having increasing difficulty taking care of basic needs and had fallen several times. Like most, she had no long-term care insurance and insufficient savings to pay for decent care. The only alternative was a welfare nursing home. We both consider that to be a fate worse than death. It's just a place to warehouse people until they die (usually quickly), while extracting as much profit as possible for as little care as legally permissible. for me there was only one choice, so i sold my home and most of what i owned and moved in with mom. within two years she was totally disabled. the job has become more than i had bargained for, but honor and decency will not allow me to shirk my responsibilities.

for me, it's a simple matter of right and wrong. to put my own desires above my mother's needs would be despicable and wrong. to do what is needed is right. I prefer right. what do we have in this life but our own sense of right and wrong? if we can't get that right, then what good are we? I will miss her when she passes, but i will carry no regrets or guilt.
I felt like "Chicken Little" standing before a judge asking for "permission" to help my parents. I made my best case with the help of a Physician, and took over everything. Legally. It's not the best case scenario, but the only way to go for us. Anne

Good advice. Sounds like you've been through a lot of trauma yourself. One question: Did they parents have to be present when the Judge heard your case or was a written statement from the doctor enough?