Cultivating an Enjoyable Living Arrangement for Your Parent at Your Home.
Cathy Jason, owner of A Senior Blessing; a Senior Assisted Living Placement Service in Fresno, California offers some valuable suggestions for families that are providing care at their home for an elderly parent with special needs.
By Cathy Jason with Richard Melella
I wrote previously about the importance of preparing the inside of your home for the long-term care of a parent. I would like us now to consider the outdoor space around your house, as well as some ideas for weekly activities that you can do with your parent.
The idea is to make the environment outside of your parent’s room and around the house as comfortable and serene as possible. Here are some suggestions:
An outdoor fountain for waterfall sounds (there are numerous types and sizes) we purchased one that is a plastic three-tiered style. It provided some nice comforting sounds and looked more expensive than it actually was.
Wind chimes on the patio; it’s very soothing. We have one wooden and one that is aluminum.
We added two flat sided humming bird feeders that hang from a suction cup on two kitchen windows (she is always surprised and points them out when they come up so close) you can see the details up close it is fascinating. I must admit it still stops me in my tracks, too.
Consider buying a bird feeder and place it where your parent can view it (my mom reported when she saw birds or an occasional squirrel.) The sound of birds singing in your yard is relaxing.
Place potted flowering plants outside a window that your parent sits near (my mom really appreciated this).
Special Considerations for my Mom’s Living Spaces:
My mother’s bedroom needed to feel like her home. I tried to create a space for her that contained family memories. I found a cute half chalk board half corkboard wall art that I can write the details of the upcoming events upon. I can also use this board to pin up cards or pictures that have special meaning for her.
I also found a framed magnet board with shaped magnets that I can use to put family pictures on and rotate them to stimulate conversation.
A shadow box of their life tokens and pictures is a great reminder of their life. If you are crafty, you can have a wonderful time looking through their things and putting together a few memory boxes. Rotate them around her space. Also, you could include your parent in picking the items out and let them tell you about those experiences.
My mother did not like her previous mattress on her bed, so we took her to the mattress store and she picked a special pillow and mattress with the firmness she liked.
The view out her window had plants on the porch as well as hanging plants. She had a small TV in her room and a comfortable leather chair for reading. We bought her a large number clock and a motion active night light to help with late night/early morning bathroom visitations. I placed copies of our family history books in her room and she often took comfort in reading them repeatedly. I also made certain that her photo albums were in easy reach in a bookcase.
A TYPICAL DAILY ROUTINE OF A PARENTAL HOME CAREGIVER
Every day is different with different goals and outcomes- but it is important to have a consistent routine for the parent that you are providing care for; this will reduce stress for you as a caregiver, and lessen anxiety for the patient, or specifically- your parent.
Here is how a typical day might go:
- I would set the alarm on my clock for at least an hour before moms scheduled time to awake. This allowed for some “me” time; time to drink coffee and read and pray about the coming day.
- After which, I would wake mom up and assist her to the bathroom.
- We would make the bed together or, I would just make it – it really depended on the day’s activities.
- I picked out her clothes as she had no preference, but your family member may still like to do this. This gives them a sense of control- which is a good thing.
- I had her medications set out in a small bowl at her spot at the kitchen table.
- I would assist in her nebulizer breathing treatment regimen.
- While she was doing her breathing routine, I would prepare breakfast for her.
She loved her morning coffee with cream and the morning newspaper- when I was rushed or on a tight schedule- I found it easier not to give her the morning paper until we got back from our activity as it slowed her down (which was the point!)
- I found it easiest to help her in the shower in the morning so we’d take care of that three times a week. (This is a sensitive area. It can be strange giving your parent a shower. I put liquid soap on the wash cloth and let her use it to clean-up. I shampooed her hair. The trick was to make sure she was clean and with the hand-held water nozzle, the job was much easier.
- After breakfast and her shower, we would do exercises together, run errands or socialize. My mom was included in everything. I would get a kick out of taking her to the drive through car wash. She found it new and fun each time. She enjoyed the simple things toddlers enjoy. Don’t pander to your parent- but be inclusive and remember to help them keep their dignity.
- We would have lunch and watch the noon news together after which, she would read a book or watched an old-time movie or nature show.
- My mom napped most days (this gave me a break, just like when the kids were small. I would use this time wisely. Don’t do dishes do something that feeds your soul.
- When she was up from her nap she would like to read or sometimes make a phone call to a friend or family member.
- Medication time- second round of medications- make sure you stay on schedule with all the meds that your parent must take.
- We would have an early dinner- I had great plans to cook together. I even went to Sur La Table and bought old fashioned aprons for us to wear. She could prep or help in some way but I completely forgot she never liked cooking. Some things never change!
- Watch TV; help brush her teeth and get her into her PJ’s! (sleeping and taking naps is a big part of their day, so I have found she loves soft fluffy p.js.)
- In our house, we retire around 8:30 (as my husband gets up at 4:30) it was funny, when she first moved in she was surprised at how early we all went to bed. At bit of irony because I felt the same way when I was small!
- I would write tomorrows schedule on her chalkboard in her bedroom so there would be no surprises for her.
- After your parent has retired for the night– much like when you had small children – make time for you and your partner/husband. This is the time to catch up on the day’s events. It is Important to respect the relationship that you are in and commit to spending time together and communicate with each other. It is easy to take your spouse or partner for granted, especially when you are taking care of a parent at home. Make it a priority to block out time to connect with your partner!
Where do you take a parent with special needs?
It’s not that difficult really and many of these are simple suggestions: A trip to the grocery store, or to the dry cleaners, the gas station. Car needs an oil change- I took mom with me, we attended a bible study together, we spent time at the gym and she’d accompany me to the bank. These are simple errands but on the way, she would point out cars of certain colors to me. She got the biggest kick out of driving through the car wash and she always ended the experience with a declarative, “Boy that makes the car clean!”
These are the simple things in life that I now reflect upon and give me a sense of joy!
Spending this much time with your parent is bound to bring upon a surprise or two. For example, we discovered that my mom loves to watch football. When I was a child, my family was more focused on academics- we never watched football games or watched the Super Bowl. Dad preferred Opera (Ughh!) My husband is a faithful Dallas Cowboy fan. So, mom would often sit with him watching all the Sunday, Monday and Thursday Night football games. Needless to say, she was exposed to a lot of football and she loved watching the games! She’d track the plays and makes comments on plays from time to time. I have no science to back this up, but I think it has helped with her memory!
Having Fun: Pursuing the Arts Together
Mom and I would go see plays, and concerts, musical and dance performances, these events do not have to be professional or expensive. Check out local high schools, colleges, etc. When it came to town we enjoyed seeing the play Wicked- we loved it! During Christmas season, we’d go to the Nutcracker Ballet. This was our tradition. When I was a small girl it was something that mom would take me to- and now, it was my turn to return the favor.
We’d go to the cinema together. My mom loves going to the movies and getting popcorn, soda and candy. We’d sit where there was easy access to get in and out. We found that IMAX has great seats for the elderly. Wider aisles and head rests. My husband likes it too because the seats rock and he appreciates the enhanced surround sound.
Visiting the local nursery was a fun getaway, even if to just walk around and take in all the flowers and colors. I loved the garden and she enjoyed the plants. One of our favorite nurseries has cats roaming about and a dog that walks the grounds. It’s a great environment. I enjoyed the sound of the wind chimes and seeing all the young plants full of potential. Gardening is an exercise on decorating the outside of your home. You are creating an environment that can be peaceful and relaxing and beautiful. With some planning, you can plant the kind of foliage that invites wildlife to your yard. Butterflies, hummingbirds, sparrows, and scrub jays occupy our yard because of the type of plants we have planted. A beautiful garden makes for a very entertaining space to sit in, not only for your parent, but for anyone coming to visit the family.
Plan a trip to your local PetSmart or Petco. It’s so delightful seeing the baby animals. Slowing down and watching the fish in the tanks or the parakeets. It is an indoor baby animal zoo! Speaking of zoo’s, when was the last time you visited your local zoo? I grew up in San Diego so mom used to take me all the time when I was a small child. Now when we go to our local zoo, I take her to the petting zoo she loves petting the baby goats and sheep.
Take you parent to community events such as local fairs, parades, fireworks, rodeos, horse shows or horse races, civil war reenactments.
Mom enjoyed regular manicures and pedicures and I must admit, my daughter and I absolutely love the pampering too. Mom's favorite color is soft pink. This is also making the chore of cutting her thicker toe nails a pleasure because someone else is doing it not me!
Mom loves to read and enjoys going to the library. Some libraries have lecture series of local authors and your local university may have authors scheduled to come and speak or read some of their poetry or novel. Our library has a good large print section. Sometimes mom took a long while to read the book and miss the return date. I didn’t blame her, she took on “Gone with the Wind” and I recall paying a few late fees because it was hard to get the book back due to my work schedule but you can easily go online and extend your check out date.
Go out just for ice cream or frozen yogurt. Remember how fun it was just to be able to do that as a kid? Well this is how they feel. Small pleasures of life. We usually stop more in the summer but go to your favorite coffee stop during cooler months and sit and relax read the paper or a book. Celebrate the smaller things that life has to offer.
Go get facials. They are so relaxing and makes for fun bonding together. Your local cosmetology school provides this service on a budget. Or if you can fit it into your budget, spend a few hours relaxing in a spa.
Make getting haircuts a fun occasion- possibly adding on window shopping or a specialty coffee. We get our hair cut at the same place on the same schedule, this cuts down on extra trips. We go to a shop in an amazing shopping center that has lots of places to window shop or a fun patio to have lunch or coffee and a pastry the small pleasures of life!
Visit the local museums. Some cities have free days once a month. Museums work well as they are indoors so there are no weather issues to deal with and they often trigger special memories for your parent. My mom is a history buff and loves art history so she is happy pushing her wheel chair thru exhibits and riding along in it. She’ll stop and read the posts that describe the work of art. I have found that spending time with her has caused me to be more of a daily tourist. I have grown to appreciate the places of interest in our city or in the outlying area. I think of when family or friends would come to town. Where did we take them? Now I was able celebrate my community with my mom and not wait around for company to experience something new out in our community.
Go to your local farmers market with all the wonderful fresh produce. Let them pick out whatever produce they fancy; this is a way to engage in them in the cooking process and choosing fresh vegetables and produce. They also can have crafts and music that are fun to go just to relax and listen to.
Going to antique shops is fun for me and I have found it is a trip down memory lane for my mom. For me, it is a sort of a reverent pastime to be able to look at the objects that made up the stories of people that once owned them.
Celebrate all the seasons and holidays. Decorate your home and bake special holiday foods this brings great joy for your parent as the holidays typically bring about fond memories of family being together.
Drive around town and look at holiday lights and decorations. Nothing is quite as contemplative as sitting in the car with the heater on and slowly driving through the neighborhoods full of Christmas lights with Christmas carols playing over the radio. My mom loves this, and I remember seeing her come to life whenever we drove down Christmas Tree Lane. I’d point out things she liked and then when we got home from the neighborhood, I’d warm-up some hot chocolate, and we’d look at Christmas photo albums together.
Hosting a family reunion could be a wonderful time for everyone! This would be much more festive than a funeral where we usually all see each other. This would be an appropriate time for your parent to connect one more time with some distant relatives.
Take Travel Trips While You can:
Mom is still mobile right now. But when she initially moved in with us, we weren’t certain as to how much longer she would be able to get about. We had her Neurologist do a baseline of her Alzheimer’s level. He felt she was most likely at a place of quick decline. So, any travel should be done soon if we were going to take her somewhere. This kicked me into high gear. She needed a last hurrah! We quickly built a bucket list for her and with her.
We live in the Central Valley of California so these places are close to us. Any trip can be made into an excursion. Select destinations that are nearby and that can be reached by shorter car drives, Amtrak or a short flight on an airplane.
Here is a list of some of the trips we took the first year my mother stayed with us:
Monterey and the Monterey Aquarium.
They are wonderful to the elderly and those in wheel chairs. She can walk a brief time but everything is more enjoyable when she can be chauffeured around. She loved having the front row seat in her wheelchair as she was chauffeured to each new exhibit.
Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove.
A step back in time. Simple clean rooms. No TVs, phones, community fireplaces in most of the buildings. Great for reading or playing games. There are wheelchair friendly boardwalks thru the dunes down to the ocean for fantastic views sounds and smells. We always see deer and other wildlife. Twice a year the monarch butterflies migrate and rest near there. So, we went to see them. You should have seen her face as she watched the silent ballet of hundreds and hundreds of butterfly’s dance across the eucalyptus grove.
San Francisco and Napa were our Nor-Cal destinations as we have family there. She seemed to enjoy those trips that included family visits the most. We all enjoyed the tour of the wineries and they are handicap friendly so getting her around to see the grounds was easier than expected. In San Francisco she really enjoyed the Academy of Science and the Japanese Gardens at Golden Gate Park. Both places accommodate seniors with special needs.
We flew down to San Diego. And again, the airlines were very accommodating to her and her wheel chair. Mom had lived in San Diego for over 40 years so we thought she would like to see the city one more time. We took her to the San Diego Zoo and it was amazing to see all the changes. They are very accommodating to those in wheel chairs. Historic Old town was a wonderful bit of Mexico and she enjoyed a margarita, eating guacamole, and warm salty chips listening to a wonderful mariachi band. We sat out in the middle of the outdoor restaurant with beautiful flowers and palm trees. A temped 75 degrees and a soft coast wind blew though the patio. We enjoyed it too!
Take the Time to Make the Memories that Count!
I find traveling with an elderly person helps you see things in a different light. Kind of like going to Disneyland with your kinds for the first time. It’s fun to see the world through their eyes and there is also the benefit to move at a slower pace. You can take a nap, and read a book on the porch of your hotel room and just slow the day down. I tend to be schedule driven and a planner so I found this pace a challenge. My husband thinks it’s great! There were a few times we stayed overnight in a bed and breakfast, at a Fish camp near Yosemite Park and in Big Sur. My mother prefers this arrangement as it is homier.
Mom loves the ocean and the mountains and we spent many years as a family at each location. Your family member may not like either and a trip to the big city with lots of museums and concerts might do the trick. The point is this- time is valuable and never retrievable so use it wisely. If you can take time to slow down and see the world from their eyes you will experience life at a delightful pace. Take time to breathe and reflect.
My husband and I loved taking these trips and doing all these activities with my mom. As time went on, she was no longer able to participate in the travel, nor did she have energy to continue with many of these activities. So, take advantage of the opportunities while you can. You never get that moment back. Take chances. As the saying goes “live, laugh, love”.
It bears repeating, as I would get my mother ready for bedtime, she would thank me for the time we were spending together. But here’s the thing, I know that I am the one who benefited the most from this whole journey. For me, it truly was an unexpected blessing.
My mom is 94 years old and she is back living with my dad in a senior care community. Together again, they are still flourishing and making memories and in August, they will have been married for 76 years!
Thank you, mom and dad, for the honor of caring for you