Aging in Place and Social Distancing

I am thankful that right now I don’t have to balance my children’s needs, my client’s needs, and my aging parents. My parents have both taken a celestial departure from this earth, but in just imaging them being around now … I feel my chest tighten.

I am working with several families who have a loved one that someone from my company works with in the metro-DC area. Our goal is to support our clients by assisting, managing in tandem, or by just handling the day-to-day financial matters (bills, home maintenance, long term care and insurance claims). After caring for two parents who had different types of dementia, I am very attuned to how much it means for them to live their life and manage their affairs.

So here we sit with several clients who still live alone in their homes. Some have stopped all external visits from health care managers, cleaning services, and personal care assistants while others doubled down and now have 24/7 help and care in their home.

There is no right or wrong. There is just right for each individual.

The initial two week social distancing came and went. Now we are looking at near isolation for some or escalating care expenses for possibly three months. I am curious to see how we all emerge and adapt after this experience.

What I have noticed in working with adults with cognitive disabilities is that the more they interact with others, the higher they function when we sit with them to do basic bill pay tasks. However, most of those isolated at home are now getting regular calls from the family, and are having to manage in their home all on their own. In calling many of them regularly, they are doing fine and have managed to adapt to our virtual support.

Will any of us win this experiment? Will those on their own emerge stronger after showing us all how they can manage? For those that could not manage on their own, will they do better than those in communities when it comes to exposure to Covid-19?

All I know is that we are all doing the best we can with the information we have at this time, and within the resources we have at our disposal. We may just see how well our American ingenuity shines at a time when modern medicine can’t protect us.

I’m looking forward to being able to see this one in my rear-view mirror. Wondered.

Help with Healthcare is a Great Place to Start

Staying at home has given me a lot of time for Spring Cleaning. I finally went into the last box of my parent’s papers this weekend and found this note from my Mom.

When my parent’s were still coming over for dinners on Friday and we recognized something was amiss, but were unsure what, my Mom asked if I would join her for the annual physical. She had mentioned that they were having trouble keeping up with the medicines and she was worried about my Dad … would I join? This was the note she gave me summarizing all of their medications. I attended and sat quietly and watched as concerns were raised and then mostly dismissed.

Within a year, my mom had a minor stroke and she readily accepted my rides to the doctor. However, this was the beginning of the trouble in some regards. My Mom was in disbelief that she had a stroke, and started to challenge that I was making it up. She began to debate me on the way to the appointments when I would simply report that we were going to see the neurologist. When she asked “why” and I reported it was because of her stroke, she would guffaw in disbelief. At the appointment, she argued with the neurologist. Good times. ; <

I wish I had know about Anosognosia. From the Stroke Connection: “Anosognosia (pronounced an-a-sog-NO-sia) refers to a person’s lack of awareness of their own motor, visual or cognitive deficits. It can happen in people with stroke, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Looking back, I realize that even just stating that she has a stroke created an emotional response in my Mom that left her feeling like I did not have her best interests. She became very protective of her information and in return, insisted that she could manage her own affairs.

I learned over time that my parent’s responded with emotion to information or events. Any information citing they were unable to manage their own health and welfare pushed them into a defensive mode. If I arrived for a visit stressed, they would absorb my anxiety and we would have a terrible visit.

During this time my siblings and I watched as:

  • Their licenses were revoked and they continued to drive their cars;
  • They failed to pay their bills regularly and ran into issues with water and electricity;
  • Ultimately, their retirement community threatened to kick them out if they would not move from independent into the assisted living community.

I was ready in the wings when it was time to act, but it was more than two years before I was allowed back in to help. When I did re-enter I had learned a lot about how best to support and respond to my parent’s needs.

The current state of affairs may be a bridge that opens to invite you in to help. While many families are isolating themselves from their loved ones to protect them, others are including them in the shelter in place orders.

May you and your family find peace, joy, and common ground on which to move forward. Wished.

Gaining Mom’s trust.

Many of us have been seeing a parent struggle with their memory and ability to manage their own affairs long before there is ever a diagnosis.

It took time for my Mom to adapt to having me pay the bills and help her. She felt that she was managing just fine. My Dad recognized she was having trouble and asked me to help. When I started I had trouble learning how to assist without offending my Mom. My Mom never recognized that the stroke she had impacted her memory or her ability to manage. She would tell me her “brain is bad today” but that wasn’t impacting her ability to manage her life (in her own mind). When I reminded her that she did have a stroke, she would accuse me of making it up.

I slowly worked to gain her trust by doing things in tandem that she asked for help on. I found the less I pushed, the more opportunity to help I was given.

When it came to the mail and the bills, I would take the piles of mail that were lying around and triage issues as I uncovered them. Thankfully, my parents added me to the bank account so I could reverse engineer many of their household finances. I visited with a large purse that allowed me to easily drop in piles that were dispersed around their home.

One day I walked in to visit, and my Mom had created a mail pile for me that included a bill and a check. She even put a label on the pile for me. Earned.

What you Should Know if Dementia is in your DNA

For those of us caring (or have cared) for parents with dementia, you should know there are a variety of factors that we can control that will reduce our risk.

The first is good news for those of us that worry that genetic factors have sealed our fate.

Association of Lifestyle and Genetic Risk With Incidence of Dementia (JAMA, July 2019) The study sought to determine if a healthy lifestyle was associated with lower risk of dementia, regardless of genetic risk. They found that a favorable lifestyle was associated with a lower risk of dementia among participants with high genetic risk. There is considerable evidence that individuals who avoid smoking tobacco, are physically active, drink alcohol in moderation, and have a healthy diet have a lower dementia risk.

The next study reports that higher levels of daily physical activity may protect against the cognitive decline and neurodegeneration (brain tissue loss) from Alzheimer’s disease (AD) that alters the lives of many older people. This was from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Exercise offers protection against Alzheimer’s (JAMA Neurology, July 2019)

I noticed what a difference exercise made for my Dad who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I worked to encourage him to get exercise, but it got to the point that the only way it worked was when I would challenge him to play Racquetball with me. He had a group of friends that he regularly met in the mornings, but after he fell on the Racquetball court and broke his hip, he was just unable to return more because he couldn’t manage to plan ahead and would not allow me to help. When I did get him moving he was just more communicative. I do need to add that he recovered from his hip surgery and was still able to beat me. While I could run, I just couldn’t outsmart his crafty shots.

I have also seen this with the older adults I work with. The more they are engaged with others and active, the better they seem to manage when it comes to working on daily finances and household chores. I have many that really want to stay in their homes but also don’t realize how isolating that can be.

The middle stage is hard to navigate as our loved ones think they are managing but are unable to recognize what they are not able to do or follow up on. If there is anyway to incorporate friends who can help them return to an activity they shared it will give them both a social and a physical boost?

The research has proven that we aren’t predestined to the fate of our parents if we have a favorable lifestyle. The good news for our loved ones is that exercise will help them even after a diagnosis. Let me know if you have had some success getting your loved ones that have been diagnosed moving again. Encouraged.

Use It or Lose It Applies to your Memory Too

I have three clients all with Memory issues that have shown a noticeable uptick in their engagement and activity. Unfortunately, it isn’t all of them so I started to see if there was any patterns that applied to all three.

In the past one to two months, all three of them have had more social engagement. They are all widowed, and live alone. None of them had previously had much social interaction due to giving up car keys, moving into a new community, or even just because for the last year they were giving care to a loved one.

When you visit with them, initially you may not even notice they have any short-term memory issues. However, if you try to have a longer or deeper conversation with them, you quickly recognize they have some memory issues. Due to changing circumstances, all three of them have had a lot more social interaction and I think that has helped them in a variety of ways.

I have noticed it in their activity, spending, and in my direct conversations with them.

Memory loss is not a normal consequence of aging. Our brains still produce new brain cells. However, once we hit 50, there is a slowing down of brain processing which we usually equate to memory loss. Eventually, you should be able to recall information, but it just takes longer.

However, we must remind ourselves that just like muscle-strength, we need to continue using our memory skills and engage in activities that stimulate our brains. It’s why I am afraid of the traditional concept of retirement and am often day-dreaming about how best to age, enjoy life, and stay engaged in meaningful ways that will challenge my brain.

After seeing this anecdotal result, I believe that every person needs to have some form of meaningful social engagement several times a week. For many older adults who want to age in place, managing this if they live alone can be a bigger challenge. In general our friend circle may be smaller and it might be harder to visit if we are no longer driving.

The answer on how to get more social engagement will vary for everyone but most communities have senior and community centers that offer ongoing classes and exercise programs for opportunities to make new friends. However, step one is to help us all recognize that your brain is a use it or lose it muscle we all need to work on continuing to stretch. Witnessed.

If you have a loved one in this situation, can you:
– Find local classes where they might meet a new friend (senior centers, community centers, and community colleges are easy places to start)
– Connect them with a local “village” that works to connect neighbors and offer both social engagement and help around the house
– Encourage them to look at moving to an adult community be it 55+, a condominium or apartment, as well as a Life Care Community
– Look at AARP that often offers a variety of social events in your community — if you are a member you will get mail or you can also download their app that features local events that are usually free
– Have friendly visitors come to the home to take them out or have a lively discussion at home about topics they love.

Just because I’m having trouble with my short-term memory doesn’t make it OK to exclude me from discussions about me

I’m writing this post recognizing that I’m really kinda angry. I know I can get a little “righteous” but I’m seeing families work around their loved ones instead of with them.

I know often, it’s easier to to just do things for someone. Please imagine how you would feel if you suddenly found yourself on the outside when choices about your health and finances were made for you?

Maybe you had a discussion about the topic, but for someone with short-term memory loss they won’t remember that, so are there other ways to help include and remind them of the discussion and decisions made? A notebook, email or texts?

I’m working with a new client and she told me she went to the bank to get a copy of her last statement and her daughter and POA had changed her statements to paperless. She knows she can’t recall the amount of money in the bank and is having trouble managing the finances, but I could only imagine how awful it would make me feel if my loved ones were doing this around me. To be fair, they may have had the discussion and she didn’t remember. However, she was expressing how frustrating it was to be left out. She can still make good decisions and had managed to care for all these things for more than five decades. She wants her daughter to help her do it, not take it away from her and manage it for her. Short-term memory loss on it’s own doesn’t mean you can’t make good decisions or understand their consequences.

Don’t discount your loved ones ability. It is their life and if you love and respect them, assisting them when they need help navigating difficult choices is how you can show it.

I know I didn’t do this well when I started to help my parents. However, now that I have worked with so many families and individuals with varying stages of mild cognitive impairment and diagnosed dementia’s, I see a how devastating it can be to suddenly lose so much for the individual with a memory issue.

For those individuals just starting out, I always talk about us working in tandem. I will help with them organize and schedule, and they will review the bills and sign the checks. Usually, by the end of our first meeting they are breathing a sigh of relief. They see they are still involved and have control, and now have help to manage the components of paying their bills that was challenging.

You can apply this to the scheduling of medical appointments and follow ups as well.

Walk alongside, support and give your loved ones the opportunity to be involved. You might be surprised how much better things can progress when you do it together instead of “for them”. Advocated.

What I Wish I Knew When Dementia was Diagnosed: Find Joy in the Journey (#3)

journeyjoyThe last of the three things I wish I knew when my parents were simultaneously diagnosed with dementia was how important it was to find joy in the journey for everyone.

The care aspect for me, unfortunately, eclipsed my recognition that my time would have been better spent enjoying my parents. I spent a lot of time managing medical appointments and follow-ups, and I wish I would have instead used it to take Dad to a movie, or play cards with my Mom.

My parents thankfully had the means to pay for me to bring in an Aging Life Care Manager, but at the time I didn’t even know they existed. What I do know is that once I finally learned and recognized how they could help, I had already spent weeks of personal time trying to manage medical issues for my parents who could no longer be their own advocates.

After bringing in an Aging Life Care Manager, I saw how they could find a solution or resolve an issue that was taking me hours to troubleshoot. They are typically social workers and Nurses who are trained and certified experts in aging well.  You can search for one in your area here. 

I still remember the ache of missing my parents when they were sitting in front of me. The dementia had changed their personalities and behavior but often glimpses of the parent I knew would shine through.

There were hilarious and devastating moments.  I learned how to laugh and bring my parents in on the humor and worked very hard to shield them from the moments when my grief would bring me to tears.

You don’t know what you don’t know (and I certainly didn’t at the time). I hope my three wishes can help better serve you and your loved ones after a diagnosis of dementia. Refected.