4/11/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

In her series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging,” Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones looks first at the stages of aging. After all, foreknowledge better equips us for the road ahead.

Until my 50s, my parents were relatively healthy and active, and so were my aunts and uncles. One of my grandmothers actually lived alone (with her cats) into her 90s.

However, as if overnight, the older generation of my family turned a devastating corner. My father was diagnosed with vascular dementia, and an aunt and uncle went to live in a nursing home, where they both lived out their days. My mother succumbed to her COPD. I was blindsided.

I don’t think I am the only one who wasn’t prepared for the dominos to fall for my family members – nor is my family the only one to be surprised. By knowing what to expect as your loved ones age – and understanding that others are going through the same challenges – you can better manage what’s ahead, practically and emotionally. You’re not alone on this stressful, yet important journey.

Part 1: The Stages of Aging

No two people age exactly the same. Some older people will experience a crisis situation and decline quickly, whereas others will age gradually and almost imperceptibly over many years. However, most people go through fairly predictable transitions as they get older. As a potential caregiver, it’s essential that you’re aware of the stages of aging. By knowing what may be ahead, you can be better prepared.

1. Your parent is living completely independently.

Aging has begun even when your parent is living their own life and doesn’t need your help. If they’re retired, they may struggle with losing a sense of purpose and identity and need some reassurance and support, but otherwise they’re self-sufficient and doggedly independent.

Because they’re still cognitively sharp, now’s the time to talk to them about their wishes should they need care down the road. Although it may feel premature, take this opportunity to do some preliminary research about home care and long-term care facilities as well as talk to family members about their availability to help. It’s never too early to begin this discussion.

2. Your parent needs a little help but doesn’t realize it yet.

At a certain point, you or other family members may notice that your parent isn’t managing hygiene or household duties as well as they used to, like trash piling up or spoiled food in the fridge. Maybe their driving abilities have slipped, or they’re having difficulty with their mobility.

You might offer to drive them to the doctor, hire a service to clean their home or take care of their yard, or make home modifications, like handrails or taller toilets.

Related: Helping your parents as they transition to aging in place

However, at this stage, your parent will probably still insist that they don’t need your help and are perfectly capable of doing it themselves. Therefore, it’s important to tread lightly. Discuss the changes that they’re going through with sensitivity and offer them assistance to help them adapt and maintain their quality of life.

If you’re particularly concerned about your parent’s safety and can’t check in on them in person, a medical alert system in combination with a security camera, might give you more peace of mind. A camera, however, may be perceived as an invasion of privacy, so be sure to get your mom or dad’s complete buy-in before purchasing. Alexa Together, a service from Amazon that works in conjunction with its smart devices, provides support and easy ways to connect when you are apart. A free service called I’m Still Okay provides a daily check-in service for seniors living alone.

3. Your parent needs a lot of help.

older woman with her hands on her cane, with a younger caregiver's hand on her. The series “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging” begins with the stages of aging: foreknowledge better equips us for the road ahead. Image by Nastyabobrovskaya

As time goes on, cognitive and/or health problems may be making it more difficult and potentially unsafe for your mom or dad to perform standard activities of daily living (ADLs), including bathing and dressing, eating, getting around the house – in essence, living in their home without assistance. It may also not be safe for them to drive anymore.

At this point, you could hire a home care aide during the day, have them attend an adult day program or make sure someone is checking in on them on a regular basis. If none of these options is possible and your loved one is left alone for long periods, it may be time to consider an assisted living or skilled nursing facility.

4. Your parent needs full-time care.

If you’re fortunate, your parent may never reach this stage; however, many seniors will eventually need full-time care, whether because of significant mobility issues, cognitive impairment, or health problems.

This may be the time when family members consider the options of having an aging parent move in with them.

Medical care needs, such as administering medications, giving injections, wound care, or managing a chronic illness, can be a critical juncture for seniors who want to age in place, since medical aides in the home are significantly more expensive than standard home care.

If round-the-clock home care isn’t feasible, you may need to move your mom or dad into a long-term care or skilled nursing facility to make sure they have the support they need.

5. Your parent needs immediate medical care in a crisis situation.

It could be that your parent is in stage 1 or 2, going about their life as usual, and one day, they fall, have a stroke, or experience some other medical crisis and end up in the hospital. If they are unable to rebound from this medical issue, you’ll have to make some quick decisions about how to get them care – whether in a skilled nursing facility or with medical care at home. That’s one reason researching care options early – before they’re even needed – is so important!

More in the series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging”

Writer Terri L. Jones shares more information on what to expect during the stages of aging and how to navigate this potentially challenging time.

Watching Your Parents Age

Advice on Caring for Aging Parents

Safeguarding a Senior’s Dignity

Helping a Parent Manage a Chronic Disease

Accepting Help Is Essential to Self-Care in Caregiving

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over 10 years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones