Caregiving: Be There for Your Older Loved Ones

Medically Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on October 09, 2015
4 min read

When you help a loved one through some of the big life changes that come with aging, you'll share the good times and some of the tougher ones. Be prepared with these tips.

As people get older, their needs change. The home they live in might not work for them anymore.

For example, your mom may need a bedroom on the first floor so she doesn't have to climb stairs. Or maybe she needs a little help and it's time for her to move in with you or other relatives. If she eventually needs more medical or personal care than your family can give her, you might discuss the option of an assisted living space or a skilled nursing home.

Keep your loved one involved in as many decisions as possible. If possible, give her a choice between different apartments, condos, or assisted living communities. If your mother moves in with you, for instance, let her choose a paint color for her room and decide how to arrange the furniture. Give her space she can call her own.

"Just because you're older doesn’t mean you don’t get to make decisions for yourself," says internist Cathy Alessi, MD, past president of the American Geriatrics Society.

Old pictures. Books. Clothes. Sorting through items -- deciding what to take and what to leave behind when you're moving somewhere new -- can be sad for an older person. It's revisiting a lifetime of memories, says clinical psychologist Sara Honn Qualls, PhD, director of the Gerontology Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

She suggests making it a move to, rather than from.

"Instead of letting go, focus on what are good things to put into that new apartment or new place. Move to a place with the items that are appropriate; then figure out what to do with everything that's left over."

It can be hard for an older person to give up their car keys. It’s really not about the driving. It’s the loss of independence. For many, driving keeps them active and involved in their communities. Not being able to get around by themselves can affect their quality of life and lead to sadness and even depression.

Before you insist your loved one stop driving, you can talk to her doctor about it. He can recommend thinking or memory tests that will help you both decide if it’s time.

"It's important that you get a really clear picture of what they can and can't do," Qualls says.

If the doctor thinks it's OK for your loved one to drive but you're still worried, you can suggest some things that may ease your stress.

  • Make a deal that she drive only during the day.
  • Make sure the car is in good shape.
  • Make drives to the grocery store something you do together every week.
  • Offer to take your loved one in for regular eye and health exams.
  • Ask her doctor to review her medications - over the counter drugs and prescriptions -- to reduce side effects.
  • Plan the route before she drives.
  • Encourage her to take a senior driving class.
  • Keep the radio low or off, and request she doesn’t use her cell phone or eat while driving.

It's not easy to tell a loved one she shouldn't drive. She may disagree because she can’t see what her own limitations are.

If you've decided she'd be safer off not getting behind the wheel anymore, have an honest talk with her about why she should stop driving. Suggest ways she can get around instead, so she won't feel reliant on family and friends. Some churches offer elderly people rides to and from services. See if there's public transportation or senior bus service she can use. There are also ride-sharing services in larger cities to get around town.

The death of a spouse or partner can be the most stressful thing anyone goes through. The shock and grief can last for a long time.

If you're caring for someone who loses their partner, they may feel "'crazy' or stunned and may be totally disoriented," Qualls says. "Whatever they need to do during that phase to function will require some support and understanding."

Your loved one's feelings might go back and forth from very sad one day to cheerful the next to angry the next. These swings happen less often and ease up over time, but they can last for years.

"It takes a lot longer for people to rebuild a life as a widow or widower than people around them expect or want," Qualls says. "Support that person in figuring out how to navigate that magnitude of a loss and their own life structure."

While your loved one is dealing with grief, here are some things you can do to help:

  • Listen to her talk about the person she lost.
  • Take care of her physical needs. Make sure she gets healthy meals, fluids, sleep, exercise, and any medications.
  • Be patient. Grief can make a person forgetful and disorganized, unable to focus, and less interested in things that used to be favorite pastimes.