Maintaining Independence in Old Age

My friend Anne went off on vacation with her husband hoping to enjoy a week in the sun, away from the harsh 2014 winter. In addition to her other luggage, she had the burden of carrying her concern for her 89 year old mother and 97 year old step dad. The elderly couple finally agreed to move out of their private home several years ago and now have an apartment in an independent living facility. This removes the danger of their cooking for themselves in a full kitchen, but that’s about it. No doctor is on duty in case of a fall or other accident. No special physical therapies are available to offset Mom’s severe arthritis. No one sorts or manages their compliance with required pharmaceuticals. And, even though there’s a van service available, Dad still drives! When my friend is home, she and hubby check in regularly and are their parents’ chauffeur on most doctor visits. When the younger couple is away enjoying their own golden retirement years, they worry.

I have another friend, Tom, who is younger and still working full time. Last week he wound up in the local hospital with chest pains. Thankfully, the diagnosis was stress, not heart disease. It wasn’t Tom’s high-powered job that put him in the hospital, it was wrangling with his 90 year old mother. Mom is on dialysis, had an infection that put her in the hospital, had a heart attack (minor, but still…) while there, and was refusing to go to rehab instead of returning home where she thinks she will be able to resume her solitary, independent life.

In addition to worrying about Mom and/or Dad’s physical safety, we worry about their finances – are they paying their bills on time? are they making wise spending choices? are they falling victim to the scavengers who prey on the elderly? Most importantly: will their money last as long as they do? As anyone knows who has parents in their late 80’s and beyond, even in families with strong and trusting relationships between the generations, parents striving for independence will hold onto the car keys and the checkbook as their last claim on independence and self-esteem.

We’re dealing with our folks’ situation now and it won’t be long until we will be in their shoes. What are we learning now by helping them that will make our own final years safer and easier on us and on our children? With the wave of baby boomers moving into the more fragile and needy stage of life, are there models being developed, innovative individual approaches and workable community strategies documented so that the weight of our generation doesn’t handicap the next?

Are you thinking about old age? Are you planning ahead to assure a safety net for yourself and your family? Are you unwilling to think about it or at a loss for where to start? When I look in the mirror, I see my mother and my father staring back at me. I know I’m both blessed and cursed by being a lot like them – Like them I’m a survivor, but I’m also just as stubborn and fiercely independent. Still, I don’t have my head buried in the sand. I remember the hippie commune days and am currently engaged in local resilience activities here in Western North Carolina. I don’t think we can count on Washington, DC, our state governments, or our over-burdened children to carry all of us through our time of rising need and diminishing (personal and societal) resources. Let’s begin to explore and create for ourselves the bright future we deserve.

Below and in future blog posts, I’ll be presenting several interesting models of senior lifestyle options and hope you will offer comments and additional possibilities.

1999 was “The International Year of Older Persons” and some interesting work on this issue was begun in New Zealand. A summary is presented below.

Select this link to download the entire article.

Maintaining Independence in Old Age: Policy Challenges

Máire Dwyer, Alison Gray

Ageing can often reduce an individual’s independence. As part of its contribution to the International Year of Older Persons 1999 the Government commissioned research into the factors that help maintain the independence of older people, and this paper summarises the key policy challenges that emerged from the research. Information was collected by literature review and feedback from key informants, including older people themselves (via focus groups).

The research confirmed that what individuals do, and what happens to them before they become old, are the most important influences on independence in old age. Thus even when serious disability or illness occurs, those with good personal resources and social capital are more likely to be able to access the support to live independently.

Other important factors included society having a positive attitude to ageing, having adequate income, support with personal health needs (including speedy and affordable access to health services), having appropriate housing and security, and concerns about transport.