Dos and don'ts for looking after your elderly parents

Caring for parents at home.
Caring for ageing parents can be a difficult job. Image: Matthias Zomer

We can’t escape getting older. But what do you do when life’s circumstances mean your parents are no longer able to care for themselves the way they want to?

It’s a topic Martin Warner, from Home Instead Senior Care, is all too familiar with. It’s his business, with wife Sarah, to help others to find the right options for supporting ageing loved ones, but it’s also something he’s experienced himself. In fact, it’s what got him in this business in the first place.

With his own mother wheelchair-bound he said it got to a point where she was too vulnerable to live on her own, but she was not wanting to move into a home. So they built her a granny flat attached to their own home, which offered both independence and security. It was peace of mind all round.

As time has gone on and her needs have become more complex, they’ve adjusted, as planned, to include extra outside support for his mother, plus also regular contact with all his siblings. While one is based locally and can make regular visits, another one lives overseas, but he also has regular contact to keep in touch.  “Ageing is a family dynamic,” Martin Warner said. In his mother’s case, having access to an iPad was life-changing too. With access to email and FaceTime, among other things, she’s said it helps her feel like she’s still a part of the world.

While this was the right solution for Martin and his mother, it’s not a suitable option for everyone. Martin says there’s so many care choices these days, it’s a matter of working out what is right for your situation, so he offers these tips to help.

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Talk to your parents  

It’s crucial to communicate with your parents and understand their needs. Seniors are often fiercely protective of their independence and may even refuse help. However, if they wish to continue living independently at home throughout their elderly years, it may mean they require the assistance of a full-time caregiver.

Do your homework

It’s important for you and your siblings to firstly identify the types of services that your parent needs. There are a variety of organisations and resources available that can help you meet those needs. Both health.gov.au and commcarelink.health.gov.au are good places to start.

Plan ahead

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Once you’ve identified what your parents’ needs are and explored what the available resources are, you can start planning how to share the load. If a parent wants to remain living at home, it will be important to plan for the years ahead and work out whether the duties can be shared by siblings and whether professional help is required.

Be flexible

Life is fluid and circumstances change. Accept that each of you may not always be able to share the responsibility, and that’s OK. It is important not to insist that all caregiving tasks be split down the middle. The division of care should take into account the family member’s interests, skills and availability. The needs of your parent/s will also change over time and this needs to be taken into account.

Talk to each other

It’s vital to communicate if you are feeling overwhelmed with the stress of caring for a parent. Carers Australia found that 55 per cent of primary carers spend more than 20 hours a week providing care, which is the equivalent of a second job. If you’re struggling to cope, call a meeting with your sibling/s to discuss how they can assist. They might be able to contribute more hours into caregiving or help with looking into private care support options.

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These tips form part of Home Instead’s 50-50 Rule, where all siblings take a role in the care, no matter their personal situation. Even a family who is not close can take a role in supporting their loved ones in their own individual way.

He said planning ahead was the number one starting point, rather than waiting until a moment of crisis. It’s not just about planning for tomorrow either. You need to look at what is needed now but what might be needed in five years time, or beyond. If you don’t know where to start, businesses like Martin’s are a good place to start, where they can provide information on all the options available. 

Stress can be a big issue when one family member is the sole carer. Martin said it was important to reach out for help and to talk to both siblings and parents about your needs too.

Do you have a role in looking after your elderly parents? What decisions have you had to make over time?