The risks of “living at home as long as possible.”
From the time we are two and declaring “no!” – until we are two-plus-ninety, we value our independence. Independence is intrinsically linked to the widely held view of seniors “living at home as long as possible.”
But as much as we value this freedom, as we age into our 80’s and 90’s we need to recognize limits to our self-reliance, such as increased physical frailty, vision and hearing changes, and losing a driving license.
We need to ask ourselves: “Why is it desirable to have old people living in old homes?” Both the people and the home need a lot of support. And why do we encourage older people to wait “as long as possible?” This implies that we should wait until a crisis occurs. Let’s be more proactive. There is wisdom in knowing when and where to make a Smart Move. (1)
We often hear or make comments like: “Do you know that she is 91 and still living in her own house? Isn’t that wonderful? She is so independent.” And my reply: “Perhaps it is wonderful – but for whom? And is she really independent? Or is she relying on family and friends to provide daily support?”
It is not surprising that most seniors wish to live in their homes. A familiar house and neighbourhood are comforting. For those with visual or memory impairments, the familiar surroundings contribute to feeling safe and in control. The family home may also be important to the younger generation. They associate it with powerful memories of growing up, and still consider it part of their roots.
Today, however, there are many more housing options for an aging population. Moving into supportive environment at the right time might serve everyone’s best interests. It could provide relief for the family, and opportunities to socialize, and have personal care for the senior.
When I see someone over 85 living alone in a private home, I look for the “invisible” family members or friends providing regular support. As Cheryl Mahaffy wrote in “Sandwiched Caregivers”(2), at least two-thirds of those over 75 depend on others for help.
Often a senior’s first call is to a son or daughter. The older adult may need help getting to medical appointments, shopping, meal preparation, house cleaning and maintenance. The responsibility puts adult children in a push-pull dilemma. They are pushing to keep their own family and career demands on track while feeling the pull of wanting to give back to a parent.
Both generations are trying to do the right thing. Seniors hear from others, such as doctors, friends and society, how great it is that they are living at home as long as possible. Family and friends are told to support independence. Continuing “invisible” support leads to caregiver fatigue and strain on family relationships. And then the worrying begins.
Worry – when the phone rings at odd hours.
Worry – when the phone rings and rings at the other end and they do not know if their family member is safe.
Worry – which may keep them from taking an out-of-town holiday – in case something happens.
So perhaps the next time you hear – or find yourself saying – “isn’t it wonderful that an older adult is living at home as long as possible” – consider taking a different approach. Ask whether the family has support. Explore whether this lifestyle is working for everyone. If not, encourage everyone to seek information about possible options.
Author: Maureen Osis, gerontological nurse and family therapist, retired.
Originally published in Alberta Views, Oct/Nov issue, 2005. Adapted and reprinted with permission.
- SMART MOVES. Future article to be published with “The Meaning Of Home.”
- Cheryl Mahaffy. Sandwiched Caregivers. albertaviews, October 1, 2005. https://albertaviews.ca/sandwiched-caregivers
Want to offer support to someone (or yourself) who is an invisible caregiver?
Read: Do My Aging Parents Need Help?
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