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How should we care for our parents as they age?

Supporting your elderly parents once they reach a certain stage of life can be a big adjustment. This advice will help you navigate the changes together.

Watching your parents get older can be a challenging process. At some point, you realise they’re no longer looking after you and it’s your turn to care for them through retirement and beyond.

Aside from the emotional labour, there’s a lot to consider when you’re caring for ageing parents. You might have to get important paperwork in order, navigate complex aged-care bureaucracies and make big decisions about health care.

Planning ahead can make everything much less stressful for you and, crucially, help your parents age well and maintain a great quality of life. Here are some practical tips to get you started.

Focus on what your parents want

Putting your parents at the centre of all discussions about their care arrangements is one of the most important and empowering things you can do.

“Listen to their concerns, their fears, their hopes,” says comedian Jean Kittson, author of We Need to Talk About Mum & Dad, which was inspired by Kittson’s own experiences caring for her elderly parents, Elaine and Roy. “Never let them feel that they are a burden, an embarrassment or helpless.”

Get on top of the paperwork

The volume of paperwork you’ll need to do as your parents age can be overwhelming, but Kittson’s advice is simple: get an old-school notebook. “Write everything down,” says Kittson. “Everything: conversations, appointments, instructions.”

Organising multiple certified copies of all of your parents’ important documents – birth certificates, marriage certificate, licences, passports, bank records and more – will also make the process of applying for all sorts of assistance much smoother.

Work towards financial security

Finances become increasingly important as your parents age, and one of the most effective approaches is to find a financial planner who specialises in later-life planning.

“A good financial planner can keep your elders’ assets safe and accessible, and make sure they are used to benefit their ongoing care and comfort,” says Kittson. “They can also ensure government assistance is maximised.”

Unsure where to start looking for a financial advisor for your elderly parents? Moneysmart has some helpful tips.

Make a plan for housing like aged care

For many people caring for ageing parents, figuring out if and when it’s time for your parents to leave the family home is one of the toughest decisions to make. The earlier you chat with your parents about their preferences, the better, says Martin Warner, CEO of Home Instead Senior Care.

There are two main options for aged-care homes: government funded and privately funded.   “Government funded services include in-home care, residential aged care in nursing homes and short-term care such as respite care,” says Warner. The government’s My Aged Care is a great starting point to look into your options.

Privately funded services are self funded and not regulated by the government. They include privately owned aged-care homes, assisted living facilities like retirement villages and independent living units, as well as services in the home, like cleaning and gardening.

Maintain healthy lifestyles

More Australians are living full lives well into their 80s and 90s and keeping up a healthy lifestyle is one of the most important ways to maintain quality of life. Warner says encouraging your ageing parents to eat well, exercise regularly and socialise will help to safeguard mind and body for years to come.

“Foods rich in protein, vitamins and minerals will help protect and fuel the body,” he says. “Exercise assists with bone density, cognitive function, overall muscle mass and a higher level of functional health.” Better Health Channel and Home Instead’s guide, How to Plan For Successful Ageing, offer more lifestyle advice for older Australians.

It’s also important to keep an eye on your parents’ health, whether they like it or not, and accompany them to regular GP appointments. “Evidence shows that regular reviews of health will improve wellbeing,” says Kittson.

Look after yourself, not just your ageing parents

There’s no doubt that caring for ageing parents adds to your own mental load. And it can also impact your mental wellbeing, not least because your parent–child relationship is reversed. “To adjust to these new changes, patience and understanding are essential,” says Warner. “You’re going through this together.”

Kittson’s advice is to recruit a wingperson to help ease the load – a sibling, a friend or a neighbour. “And have a back-up wing person in case the first one isn’t answering the phone or hasn’t got time for a drink,” she says. “You will need emotional and physical support to help you hang in there and survive the ride.”

For extra help, contact the Carer Gateway Counselling Service, a free service for carers.

Words by Angela Tufvesson
First published May 2020

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