One of the major thresholds of parenting is knowing when you can leave your kids at home on their own. Are they responsible enough to make appropriate choices while you’re out? Could they leave the house safely in case of an emergency? Would they be able to handle the unexpected, like a fall or scraped knee?
As our loved ones age, similar concerns can arise about their ability to continue living alone. It’s a complex dilemma for adult children, because we want to see our parent as we (ideally) always have: competent, strong, the person we turn to for advice and support.
But there may come a time when the risks of an aging parent living alone outweigh the benefits of independence, particularly for someone with cognitive or physical issues. So, how do you know when it’s no longer safe for your loved one to be on her own?
Here are a few key questions that can help to guide your (joint, if possible) decision:
Does your loved one know what to do in case of emergency?
While, of course, you don’t want to wait until an emergency happens to answer this question, you can learn a lot by asking how your parent would handle various scenarios, such as a fire, a power outage, a fall, or simply not feeling well.
- Does he know when it’s appropriate to call 911? Can he show you how he would use the phone to do this (without actually placing the call)? Older adults may fall back on “calling the operator”— and become confused speaking to an automated call service.
- Does she know how to use her emergency pendant? Does she actually wear it all the time? Over and over, we hear of loved ones who leave their pendants on a dresser or don’t understand what it’s for.
- Is he able to call you or another emergency contact? Can he make an appropriate judgment as to when that’s necessary? Not wanting to “be a bother” can be overdone to the point of avoiding asking you for help when it’s essential; at the opposite extreme, an anxious parent may call so often that it’s difficult to discern when an emergency is real.
- Is she physically capable of getting out of her home if there is a fire or other emergency, such as a carbon monoxide monitor alert? This requires good judgment as well as mobility and speed.
Does your loved one engage in unsafe behaviors?
This can run the gamut from leaving an unwatched pot on the stove or forgetting to turn off water in the bathroom, to insisting on maintaining old routines that are beyond their capabilities, such as shoveling heavy snow or driving when no longer able to react quickly.
This issue can have another, complicated dimension: if one parent still cares for the other, but has compromised judgment around safety issues. For example, leaving a sleeping spouse alone in order to run errands or socialize—believing “nothing can happen” while the partner is safe in bed—can be risky if the one supposedly asleep falls while going the bathroom or becomes confused by the spouse’s absence.
Does your loved one have friends nearby who check in regularly?
Being social increases the chances that your loved one has friends and neighbors who care about her well-being and who will take the initiative to check in. These are people with whom you can share your contact information, people you can count on to be your eyes and ears on the ground if you do not live nearby. Conversely, if your loved one has always been more private or isolated socially, his ability to care for himself alone requires greater attention.
Does your loved one’s living situation enable you to sleep at night?
Ultimately, the decision about whether to leave an aging parent living alone is a matter of confidence in your loved one’s judgment and your own — and what risks you both are willing to take. If your concerns are keeping you up at night, that may well be the best indicator that it’s time to consider bringing in help or looking for a safer living situation with appropriate support.
It’s possible, of course, that your loved one may choose to remain in an unsafe living situation. If legally competent, he or she has the right to do so. Should this be the case, you may want to explore options so that you’re prepared in the event of (the almost inevitable) crisis.
Working through these issues often prompts difficult but necessary conversations. An Aging Life Care Professional™ can help you and your loved one to find the best solution together.
President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care™ manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.
For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.
Image Credit: Brooke Campbell