Caregiving: Key Changes for Your Older Loved Ones

Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 18, 2021
son with aging mother

When you help a loved one through some of the big life changes that come with aging, you'll share some of the good times and some of the tougher ones. A lot of the changes that come up, such as moving and accepting changes in what they can do, are both emotional and practical. It can be challenging for you, as the caregiver, and them, as someone who’s probably used to being independent.

If you’re the person who’s making all the decisions, or if other people in your family are also taking part, you can take steps to get ready for these shifts. And the more prepared you are, the more ready you may feel to handle these changes, step by step.

Is It Time to Move?

As people get older, their needs may change. The home they’ve lived in and loved for years might not work so well for them now.

For example, your mom may need a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor so they don't have to climb stairs. They might need a little help and feel ready to move in with you or other relatives. If they eventually need more medical or personal care than your family can give them, you might discuss an assisted living space or a skilled nursing home.

You can check with your local Area Agency on Aging to see if it’s possible to get a home safety evaluation. There are also checklists online to give you some pointers on how to make your loved one’s home safer.

Falls are a big risk. Look for things that someone could trip on, and remove them. Make sure that rugs have non-slip backing.

Check on the lighting in your loved one’s home. Do you need more lights, or brighter bulbs?

In the bathroom, install grab bars in and outside the tub or shower, and next to the toilet.

Stairs should have railings on both sides. You may also want to paint the top edge of steps a contrasting color (for instance, a white strip at the edge of a black step) and put non-slip tape on the steps.

Involve your loved one in as many decisions as possible. If possible, provide choices between different apartments, condos, or assisted-living communities. Smaller choices -- like paint colors and how to arrange the furniture -- also matter, just as those choices would matter to you in your own home. You want your loved one to feel good in their space.

If you’re looking at assisted living, nursing homes, and other facilities, visit them in person. Bring your loved one on a tour and ask questions, so you both have a good sense of what living there would be like.

Remember, moving is a lot of work. You can pitch in by sorting through books, clothes, furniture, and their other belongings. That can bring up memories, which you want to be sensitive to, while still helping them let things go, so they're ready on moving day.

Are They OK to Drive?

If you’re not sure, you can ask your loved one’s doctor to do a driving safety evaluation and vision, thinking, or memory tests.

It can be hard for someone to give up their car keys, even if it’s clear that they aren’t up to it any more. 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 changes everything.

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.

  • Agree that your loved one will only drive 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 their doctor to review their medications -- over-the-counter drugs and prescription meds -- to cut side effects.
  • Plan routes ahead of time.
  • Look into a driving safety class for older adults, and encourage your loved one to take one.
  • Keep the radio low or off, and insist on no cell phones or eating while driving.  

If you've decided they'd be safer not getting behind the wheel anymore, have an honest talk with them about why they should stop driving. Suggest ways they can get around instead, so they can stay as independent as possible. Some churches offer elderly people rides to and from services. See if there's public transportation or a senior bus service they can use. There are also ride-sharing services in many cities.

Grieving Losses

The death of a spouse or partner is one of the most stressful things anyone can go through. The grief can last for a long time.

You know that someone going through grief will need a lot of support. You may notice changes in their emotions. Their feelings might go back and forth from very sad one day, to cheerful the next, to angry after that. These swings happen less often and ease up over time, but they can last for years.

You’ll want to respect what they are going through, and also encourage them to take care of themselves. You can:

  • Listen to them talk about the person who died.
  • Take care of their physical needs. Make sure they eat well, get enough sleep and exercise, and take 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.
  • Encourage them to see friends.
  • Encourage counseling -- whether with a therapist, clergy (if the person is religious), or a social worker.


Show Sources

Cathy Alessi, MD, internist, geriatrics specialist; past president, American Geriatrics Society.

AARP: "5 Surprising Truths About Grief."

American Hospice Foundation: "Helping a Grieving Parent."

Bisconti, T. The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 2004.

The Kent Center for Human & Organizational Development: "Holmes Stress Point Scale."

Sara Honn Qualls, PhD, clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, director, Gerontology Center, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Western Region Geriatric Care Management: "Older Driver Safety Awareness."

Windsor, T. Journal of Clinical Interventions in Aging, September 2006.

CDC: “Important Facts About Falls,” “Check for Safety: A Home Fall Prevention Checklist for Older Adults.”

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