October 04, 2016
One of the questions we are most often asked at Christian Family Eldercare is what to do when parents can no longer live safely in their own home, but refuse to move. This is a challenging situation. First, let’s look at it from Mom’s (or Dad’s) perspective.
As she has grown older, Mom’s world may have grown smaller. She may no longer drive outside of her own neighborhood, retracing the route to church, the grocery store, the hairdresser, and maybe a favorite restaurant, or she may not drive at all.
She is comfortable in her own home. She knows where everything is and can even navigate around the furniture at night when she makes her 4:00 a.m. trip to the bathroom. Her home is peaceful and she can eat when and what she wants to. She can have her privacy and no one is forcing new schedules on her.
It is understandable that Mom would want to remain in familiar surroundings, surrounded by possessions that she loves and appliances she knows how to use. She may have lived in this neighborhood for most of her adult life. This is where her friends are, where her church is, where everything that gives her security and comfort are. Perhaps she has a pet that could not come along to a new home.
She is understandably conflicted about leaving her home. Instead of being independent and making her own decisions about her day-to-day life, she would have to fit in with the daily rhythms of your family’s life.
Realize that she is probably grieving one or more of these losses. Try to put yourself in her shoes before judging her emotional reactions too harshly.
But perhaps the biggest roadblock to leaving her own home is a parent’s worry about becoming a burden to her family. In our American culture, we are taught to be independent. We are not accustomed to multigenerational living, as are those in many parts of the world. Your parent may need repeated reassurance that you regard it as an honor to have her in your home where she can share her wisdom and stories with your children.
Alternatives to Moving
Legally, you cannot force a mentally competent parent to leave her home. You can only do your best to help as you can. You may need to face the fact that although her life may be shortened by living in her own home, it may also be happier. It is her life, after all, and she should have some say-so about where she spends it.
If she resists moving, think about alternate ways to help her in her own home. Depending on what her needs are, a daily phone call may be sufficient; be sure to get her neighbors’ phone numbers in case she doesn’t answer your call. We did this with my mother in her later years until she eventually decided that she should no longer live alone, spending her final nine months with us.
If you suspect your parent isn’t eating well, you might arrange for Meals on Wheels to bring in lunch each day; this doubles as a daily wellness check. Does she have trouble using the vacuum or changing the sheets on her bed? Perhaps you and your siblings can pool your funds, or use Mom’s if they are available, to have a housekeeper stop in 1-2 times a week. If she resists having someone come in, you might approach it as “just a trial to see how you like it.” She may discover that she enjoys having some help and companionship for a few hours each week.
An elder can often safely remain in her own home if certain physical accommodations are made. Perhaps she needs a walk-in shower if getting in and out of the bathtub is no longer safe. Or maybe hiring a health aide to come in twice a week to help her with her shower would be a good move.
When was her vision last checked? Is there enough light for her to see clearly or has she been unable to replace unreachable light bulbs? Has she shunned social situations recently? Maybe she needs a hearing aid or someone who can change the batteries for her.
Be patient. Don’t expect her to immediately make the decision to leave the home she has loved for so many years. It may not look like much to anyone else, but to her it is home. As her health declines, she may change her mind. And if she has a serious medical event such as a stroke, the decision may be made for her.
When Dementia is a Factor
Of course the situation is totally different if you are dealing with a parent who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. Then she is no longer legally competent to make decisions for herself. As the disease progresses, she will need more and more supervision and eventually will require 24/7 care. Hopefully she has already signed legal documents such as durable and medical powers of attorney that will allow you or another family member to make decisions on her behalf when she becomes incompetent to do so for herself.
We had to stage a family intervention to get my mother-in-law out of her home. Due to her dementia, she couldn’t understand why she was at risk in her own home. The fact that she had basically stopped eating (losing five pant sizes over a short period of time), couldn’t keep her medications straight, and sat in her chair crying all day convinced us that we had to do what was best for her, regardless of her wishes. Her doctor concurred and put it in writing.
On moving day, she refused to assist in packing up any of her clothes. Forearmed, we had brought empty bags along and I packed for her while she screamed at my husband. It was a difficult day for this independent ranch wife who refused to believe that she needed help. It was tough for us, too. We had some challenging times until she eventually accepted the reality that she could no longer return to her home.1
If they haven’t already done so, encourage your parents to create a will and to sign Durable and Medical Power of Attorney documents. Don’t forget to do the same for your family, and encourage your siblings to do so, as well. Don’t wait for a stroke or other medical emergency to force you into court to gain legal guardianship.
If you suspect that your parent will need to leave her home at some point, spend time preparing her for that eventuality. Talking it over with her and with other involved family members is very important. It sets the foundation for discussing the many large and small decisions ahead. Invite her for extended stays with you to get her used to the idea of living with your family on a long-term basis when the time comes.
As someone has quipped, “Growing old is not for wimps.” Neither is taking responsibility for your parents. There will be challenges along the way, but God’s grace is sufficient, both for you and for your parents. He is able to help your parents (and you!) to be contented in this new season of your lives.
© 2016 by Marcia K. Washburn who writes from her home in Colorado. Through the years, Marcia has cared for four adult relatives in her home, and presently cares for her mother-in-law who has Alzheimer’s. Marcia is the Assistant Director of Christian Family Eldercare. Her latest book, Home-Based Eldercare: Stories and Strategies for Caregivers, is available at www.ChristianFamilyEldercare.org.
1.For details about how we handled this transition, see Home-Based Eldercare:Stories and Strategies for Caregivers by Marcia K. Washburn. Available at www.ChristianFamilyEldercare.org.