The Caregiver’s Guide to Elderly Mobility: How to be the help your aging parent needs
When we’re younger, we think of parents as invincible, but as we get older, we know just how acutely incorrect that is. As your parent or other loved one is aging and living through the changes that come with this new life stage, you may find that you need to step in as an advisor, assistant, or even full-time caregiver.
While it can be an intimidating or scary prospect, you don’t have to do it alone.
This guide will:
- Help you decide if and when your parent needs help
- Show you where to start
- Give you a list of tasks and equipment you will likely need
- Give you a list of resources for caregivers
How to Tell When Your Parent Needs Senior Care
There is no set time when a person will need help. There are people in their late 90s who are perfectly healthy and active and people in their early 60s who are immobile. No matter where your family member is on that spectrum is within the range of normal, and it’s important to make sure they know that.
The changes that come with age can cause a lot of feelings—like frustration, embarrassment, shame, anger, and sadness—so approach the following signs with compassion and care.
- Complete or Partial Paralysis: This is one of the most obvious signs that your parent will need help. While there are more resources than ever for people with paralysis, a newly paralyzed person will likely need help making that transition.
- Mobility Issues: Your parent could be experiencing mobility issues if they’re moving more slowly or having trouble sitting, standing up, or balancing.
- Falls: While a fall can happen to anyone, when it happens to your parent, it’s time to see if there is a bigger issue going on.
- Problems Driving: Many seniors drive for far too long. If you are questioning your loved one’s driving abilities, step in before it’s too late.
- Difficulty with ADLs: Activities of daily living (known as ADLs) include eating, getting dressed, bathing, using the toilet, transferring from one position to another, and walking. These are crucial activities for a person who wishes to live alone; if your parent struggles to complete these, it’s time to step in.
- Difficulty with IADLs: The instrumental activities of daily living are tasks that, while not 100% necessary, are a major part of most people’s lives. They include managing finances, managing medication and personal medical care, cooking, shopping, transportation, communication via phone or mail, and housekeeping. If your loved one cannot complete one or more of these, they likely need help on a larger scale.
- Other Physical and Mental Issues: If you’re seeing signs of poor health, depression, loneliness, anxiety, irritability, or confusion, your parent likely needs your help.
Watching a parent experience these issues can take a toll on the whole family. The parent you once had may be changing and they may be frustrated with themselves. That’s why it’s so important to have a plan.
The Importance of Independence
Maintaining independence is one of the biggest reasons that seniors refuse help at first. They’ve had decades of being capable caregivers for others, and the idea that someone now has to help them can be hard for some to handle.
Not only do they not want to be seen as weak, they also don’t want to lose their independence.
Independence and the ability to do as one chooses is an incredibly important part of being a human. The loss of autonomy is associated with poor health outcomes; the Harvard Medical School states, “Loss of mobility has profound social, psychological, and physical consequences.” Losing one’s sense of independence can be devastating for seniors in many ways. Mobility issues can be a barrier to visiting friends and family, attending routine medical appointments, and making typical day-to-day decisions that people without mobility issues don’t need to think twice about.
But if public transportation is sparse or driving is becoming or has been unsafe, that can only exacerbate feelings of isolation or loneliness.
If it’s time for you to start thinking about helping your elderly parents with mobility issues, here’s what to do next.
Where to Start
When you decide that your parent needs help, this is what you should do.
- Talk about their wishes and priorities. As long as possible and as long as it is safe, you should respect your loved one’s wishes. Ask them what kind of support they think they need and where they want to live (at home, with you, or perhaps in a senior living community), and discuss your options.
- Gather important documents and records, like medical records, home and health insurance records, financial documents, power of attorney, birth certificate, marriage certificate, passport, advanced directives, and their will. If they don’t have some of these (or don’t have access to them), it’s important to get them all in one place.
- Call and visit as often as you can. As we’ve mentioned, mobility issues can cause social or psychological issues, so make sure you’re reaching out to your loved one as often as possible so they know they aren’t alone. Treat them with compassion and remain nonjudgmental about their abilities.
Your Next Steps: Keeping Your Parent Safe
Many seniors opt to live in their homes or the home of a family member for as long as possible. While you’ll certainly get some peace of mind having your loved one right there with you, you’ll likely need to make several changes to the home to keep it safe. You’ll also need to think about transportation options, as many seniors with mobility issues cannot ride in a typical vehicle, let alone ride in one.
Fall-Proofing Your Home
Did you know that the mortality rate one year after a femoral fracture is 13 to 14%? That’s not a risk you want to take. Seniors are at serious risk for falling, which can lead to major medical issues or death. Seniors with mobility issues have an even higher risk of falling. In order to make your home safer, make sure that you fall-proof your home. This can include things like:
- Creating floor traction by securing rugs to the floor, removing high-pile carpets (they are a trip hazard), and adding rug pads below every rug. Consider installing traction strips on stairs as well.
- Moving furniture around to open up extra space. If your parent is in a wheelchair, this may mean removing some of the furniture from your home to give them room to maneuver their chair.
- Installing railings along stairs and in bathrooms. You should have grab bars in the shower and near the toilet; you may want a chair in the shower as well.
- Adding additional lighting, particularly in hallways and bathrooms.
- Adding a ramp to the outside of the home or over an interior step.
- Adding a stairlift if going up and down the stairs is necessary in your home.
No matter what your parent’s mobility issues are, there is probably a mobility aid out there that will help them move on their own.
- Canes and walkers help individuals who can still walk on their own but who may struggle with balance or lower-body weakness or pain.
- Manual wheelchairs are ideal for seniors who want to be out and about and who still have the upper body strength to use them.
- Power wheelchairs, while much heavier, can help your parent go near and far without getting tired.
Many seniors stop driving not because of their mental faculties but because of physical restrictions. If your parent’s doctor agrees that it is still safe for your parent to drive, that’s great news and will be a major boon to their sense of independence. Just because your loved one is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean they can’t get around for themselves. There are many types of driving aids on the market that can alter a vehicle to be mobility-friendly and accessible for all drivers.
- Hand controls allow drivers to use their hands to brake and accelerate instead of their feet.
- Foot controls extend the length of the brake and accelerator pedals, making them easier to reach. They can also stop those pedals from being engaged when hand controls are in use.
- Extension controls can help the driver reach other important parts of the car, like turn signals or the gear shift.
- Steering aids, including grips, spinner knobs, and hand securements, allow people with weak grip or low stability to turn a steering wheel.
Non-Emergency Medical Transportation
If your parent is no longer capable of driving, that doesn’t mean they need to be (or should be) housebound. While you can certainly work with a transportation provider to get NEMT services, you can actually get your own non-emergency medical transportation vehicle.
- If your main concern is helping your parent access medical services, a wheelchair-accessible van can be the answer you’re looking for.
- You can also choose a vehicle conversion, which adapts a vehicle you already own into an accessible van. These conversions include adding a ramp or lift, wheelchair tie-downs, and a raised roof and lowered floor for easier access.
- Some accessible vans use transfer seating to move a passenger from a wheelchair to a car seat, while others (called ambulettes) allow the person in a wheelchair to stay in the chair.
If your family member has chosen to move into an assisted living or independent living facility, make sure that they have a NEMT program so your parent can remain an active member of the wider community.
Caregiving for an elderly parent with mobility issues can be physically and mentally taxing. If you’re feeling burnt out, frustrated, or even resentful, don’t worry. These feelings are incredibly common. There are many resources for elderly people with mobility issues and for their caregivers.
The AARP offers care guides, checklists, and a community to help family caregivers through this new stage.
This organization provides support (and a 24-hour hotline) for people with Alzheimer’s disease, their family, and their caregivers.
ARCH National Respite Network
Do you need a break? This network will help you find services and programs in your community to keep you, the caregiver, healthy too.
Community Resource Finder
This site has a list of Alzheimer’s and dementia resources.
No matter where you are across the United States, you can find services and resources for eldercare in your local area.
National Council on Aging
This organization provides community programs and services in conjunction with nonprofits, businesses, and local governments.
Veterans Affairs Guide to Long-Term Care
Is your parent a veteran? This guide will help you understand your options and find resources for which they are qualified.