MIDDLEBURY — “Americans hate aging,” said Joanne Corbett, executive director of Elderly Services Inc. in Middlebury.
Her listeners, attendees at an “Introductory Eldercare” class last month, were all caring for — or thinking ahead to a time when they would be caring for — an elderly relative.
Corbett described the many factors that families find themselves juggling when it comes to planning elder care, generally for a parent or other close relative.
From the logistical side of things, there are the choices of whether to move an aging parent out of his or her home into a son or daughter’s home or an assisted living facility. There are decisions about the range of social services available to seniors. And there is the financial burden associated with aging, which the recession has brought into a much more serious light (see related article).
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Among the most difficult parts of the process, said Corbett, is the period of “watchful waiting,” where adult children see their parents aging and start to prepare for when the parent isn’t independent anymore. This process is often further complicated by the struggle to accept a change in the power structures that have always existed — instead of the parent caring for the offspring, the daughter or son now has to step into a role of responsibility for the parent.
“Reversing the lines of authority and decision-making is very, very difficult,” said Corbett.
For parents and children, it can be difficult to know when a parent’s decline in independence has become a serious problem. Corbett said people keep an eye on the deterioration of a parent’s “activities of daily living” — basic skills such as personal care and hygiene, mobility in the home, eating and dressing — and on what she called the “instrumental activities of daily living” — learned skills like housekeeping, paying bills, doing yardwork and scheduling appointments.
As these skills begin to go, Corbett said that both parents and their children often experience denial of the symptoms. But many adult sons and daughters also have a reaction the opposite direction, and Corbett emphasized that it is important for children to keep a perspective on what keeps the parent healthy and happy when viewing an older loved one’s lifestyle changes.
“A parent does not need to meet the all-American standard of shampooing and showering every day,” she said — if the parent hasn’t been going out and interacting with other people all day, a shower may be an unnecessary exertion.
“It’s a complicated decision of deciding, as a child, where you should let up,” said Corbett.
A PERSONAL DECISION
Liz Walker of Ripton went through this struggle three years ago, when her aging mother, Blanche, was having a harder time living alone and increasingly suffering from dementia. Walker, her husband and son moved from New Hampshire to Vermont and moved her mother in with them. Before that moment, though, Walker and her siblings went through a difficult decision process.
“My family was very good at denial,” she said. “It was inconvenient to think that you’d have to change your life.”
And once Walker had decided to leave her job to take care of her mother, now 87, the family encountered another problem — her mother lived on the street she’d grown up on, and the strong emotional connection made her reluctant to leave her home.
Three years later, Walker’s mother spends all of her time at Project Independence, the adult daycare facility run by Elderly Services, or with Walker.
“The biggest issue is transportation,” Walker said.
While Project Independence runs buses to transport participants to its Exchange Street building, the buses do not come to Ripton, so Walker brings her mother.
Corbett said that dependence on others for transportation and other kind of assistance can be very difficult for elders to adapt to, especially those who have always considered themselves to be very independent.
“Overvaluing ‘independence’ can cause an elder to miss out on the happiness of new relationships (and) new community,” Corbett said.
But as mobility decreases — as elders lose or give up their driver’s licenses, or have less to draw them outside of the home — housekeepers and home health aides can be important sources of socialization, especially for elders who continue to live alone.
In rural areas like Addison County, a decrease in mobility also means a decrease in socialization outside of the house.
“I see an awful lot of elders not having a lot of fun,” Corbett said.
That, said Corbett, is why Project Independence was formed almost 30 years ago. At the time, it was a rare program, although adult daycare centers have become much more widespread in the years since. These types of centers are dedicated to keeping elders as independent as possible for as long as possible, providing square meals and staff who can make sure that elders are caring for themselves properly. They are also able to take some of the pressure off of caretakers.
“Most people prefer to continue living in their own home or with a family member,” said Corbett. “For most families (caring for an elderly relative), it’s a huge part of the balancing act.”
And the socialization, mental stimulation and physical care that the center provides, said Corbett, often helps to hold off mental and physical degradation for a longer time.
While Project Independence/Elderly Services was originally administered by the Counseling Service of Addison County, it has since grown into its own organization. Elderly Services works closely with family members of its participants and other elderly people in the county to provide resources and help with the aging process. The geriatric social workers provide counseling and eldercare classes for people in the county with aging relatives.
And the organization works to connect people with other resources for aging in Addison County, including Addison County Home Health and Hospice, the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging and Addison County Transit Resources for transportation, as well as help with deciding on living situations and applying for financial aid.
Above all, though, Corbett counseled the attendees of the class to seek help early. Speaking with a social worker in advance of any problems allows families to plan ahead for unexpected events.
“(If you plan ahead,) you know where you’re going to turn when you need help, and who will help you get services,” she said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.