My family’s caregiving journey for an older adult began some thirty years ago when my father died unexpectedly. In her sixties, my mom was thrust into a dynamic situation of caring for a home, cars, and a yard, and it quickly became overwhelming. My husband and I took over many of these tasks, but Mom was lonely on her own. About this time, we were planning to build a new house for our family. After much discussion, we developed an extension to the blueprint of our house and opted to bring Mom into our home.
In our family, planning was integral to make it all come together. There were multiple discussions with all affected family members about space considerations, meals, financial responsibilities, privacy, and more. Over the years, families have come to us for advice about incorporating an older adult into the home. Here is some of what we learned.
First and foremost, talk with your spouse or partner before any moving arrangements are made. Even if all the immediate family are not in the home where the older adult will be living, all family members need to be involved. Extended family and close friends can also provide valuable feedback.
You also should explore expectations with the older adult. A conversation should occur with the older adult after the immediate family has a chance to talk so that all expectations can be outlined together. We did not have this conversation with my mother, and I believe it would have created a smoother transition for everyone.
All parties involved have expectations of each other, and it is best to determine what those expectations are before the moving process starts. The areas for discussion may be different for each family, but here are some common themes:
Safety: The older adult may be accustomed to independent living that may present a safety challenge in the new space. When talking with the older adult, include topics that focus on safety. Is she safe to continue cooking on a stove, or should she consider using a microwave?
Does the new bathroom need handrails? Some rugs can present tripping hazards for older adults. Make an assessment of floor coverings and other safety concerns in the home.
Accommodations: An area of concern for family members and the older adult are the living accommodations. Will the older adult have space on the main floor or in adjoining rooms to the family? What does the family’s common area look like? Will the older adult have a private bathroom or will they need to share a bathroom with the kids? How much private space does the family need? How about the older adult?
We were fortunate in that we were able to construct an area that my mother liked, but even so, she wanted more space and it was hard for her to part with some items from her home. Where we could, we tried to incorporate her furniture and other things into our space. She placed many of her personal belongings into her living area.
It’s important to maintain social networks. If the older adult wants to entertain guests, can this happen without including the nuclear family? In reverse, if the family wants to entertain, can this happen without including the older adult? To avoid frustration, discuss these topics in advance.
Food: Mealtime can be an enjoyable bonding time for the nuclear family and the older adult. I recommend discussing some of the questions that surround food in your home. Planning meals, shopping, and cooking are all areas to consider when incorporating the older adult into the family. Your ideas about meals may be very different from the older adult’s. Do you like to pick up dinner at a nearby restaurant? Does the older adult have food preferences and a store that she prefers for shopping? Will you need to shop for everyone?
If your nuclear family has enjoyed eating out, how does the older adult feel about being included in the outing? Will she be offended if you leave her at home so the family can have a meal together and talk?
Finances: Money may often be a challenge in a family before you even think about adding the needs of the older adult into the mix. Are there expectations that the older adult will pay certain household bills? Does the family provide services for the older adult like cooking, cleaning, and laundry? Would the older adult be willing to cover a bill to support the family?
Family and Friend Support: Your family will benefit from the support of others while the older adult is living with you. Is there a sibling or other relative outside your home who can help with meals, errands, medical appointments, or other needs? If you’re vacationing as a family, this support system can help keep the older adult safe and provide peace of mind while you travel.
Spouse/Partner Connection: Keeping your couple relationship strong is crucial to the successful transition of the older adult into family life. Schedule time to discuss home and family, children, and any concerns. Does your partner have concerns, and if so, how are you addressing them? It is essential to keep your core relationship as a priority.
Family Interaction: It is important for family members and the older adult to feel like contributors in the home. When my mother was physically able, she cooked occasionally, sewed, and covered a specific bill. Depending on the older adult’s health and abilities, perhaps she can take on a few household tasks, provide childcare, or help the kids with homework.
Children in the home need to hear that they are loved and supported as this new family member has joined the household. Carve out time to hear their daily questions and concerns to help kids adjust to the changing family life.
Family members can learn more about their older adult (whether this is a grandparent or other family member) and enrich their family history. My mother shared pictures and stories that my now-adult children will always remember and today, they share that information with their families.
Generational Issues: Does the older adult have strong opinions on certain topics that may be a challenge for the family dynamics? The older adult may have strong views on political or religious topics. It is advantageous to address these concerns early in the relationship so that it doesn’t present challenges for family life.
Dealing with Challenges: Just as with any relationship, there will come a point when you and your older adult are not seeing things the same way. Create a space and time to discuss the issue and then determine if a compromise is possible. With the nuclear family, there is always a chance to discuss and resolve an issue; the same is true with the older adult.
If your family decides to bring an older adult into your home, I can guarantee you that honest communication will help your family make the most of that arrangement. Recently, I asked my husband to choose one word to sum up three decades of living with an older adult and he said “patience.” We also talked about the changes that occurred in our lives with the addition of my mother, and we agreed that our family life was richer because Mom was with us.
If you are the adult child pondering this choice today, you will have the peace of mind knowing that your loved one is safe and has support to sustain them for many years to come. My mother lived to be ninety-six, and I believe being in an active household surrounded by those who loved her contributed to her longevity. As we raised children and maintained our home with Mom, there were many benefits and some challenges. With patience and strong communication, our family and Mom were able to thrive together. I wish the same for your home, too!