Making Life a Little Easier for an Elderly Parent

by Reader Contributors

Making Life a Little Easier for Elderly Parent photo

Perhaps your elderly parents aren’t as self-sufficient as they once were. Here are some things you can do to make life a little easier for them and support them in their continued independence.

My father just recently died, and now my mother is living alone. Her health had taken a dip just before Dad died.

Do your readers have any ideas about ways I can help her with things like organizing her home better, stocking her up on foods, etc.? I will be visiting at least monthly (it’s a two hour trip one way), and my siblings will be going up on some weekends also. My sister is close by, but we need to take some of the pressure off of her. Up until recently the folks were always self-sufficient.

Thanks for any ideas.
Wendy W.

Meals for One

We were in this same situation a few years back. Dad died, leaving Mom to cook for just herself. I kept my eyes open at garage sales for “one-person size” microwavable and freezable containers. Whenever I cooked a dinner and had enough leftovers for one person, I popped them into one of these containers and stuck it in the freezer. When I visited Mom, I would take a week or two week’s worth of meals up to her.
T. Y.

Our Suggestions

There are several things I would recommend.

  1. Check out Meals on Wheels. For a small fee (or free if you are really badly off financially), they deliver a hot lunch and a cold supper. This also means that someone would check on your mother every 24 hours so that if she were ill you could be notified.
  2. Immediately call the Fire Department and ask for a “Vial of Life” and sticker to go on her refrigerator door. The Vial of Life contains medical information so that paramedics could immediately access her health problems and know that she is (for instance) diabetic and not drunk, that she has high blood pressure and may have had a stroke. This would also give them a contact phone number to reach a family member.
  3. Make up homemade “TV dinners” for her that meet her dietary restrictions and are things that she likes to eat. You can buy microwaveable trays at warehouse stores to put them in. Label each one with date, contents, and heating instructions. We did this for the elderly in our church. Fill the trays, wrap in plastic wrap, wrap again in plastic wrap or aluminum foil removing as much air as possible. Freeze in a deep freeze and take them to her packed with dry ice so they don’t thaw. Check out which ones she is actually eating when you visit. (See How to Prevent Freezer Burn.)
  4. See if you can financially swing a weekly or biweekly maid to clean your mother’s home. Having someone clean the bathroom and kitchen and other rooms regularly could be a great help to her. Many elderly people do not see well and just don’t see the dirt that is accumulating.
  5. If her house will accommodate it and she is agreeable, see about getting a live-in college student from a seminary or other local college. Get references and check them out carefully. (See Finding In-Home Help for an Elderly Parent.)

Mary D.

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Simple Suggestions

If she doesn’t have a microwave she can easily reach, get her a small one and make sure you show her how to use it.

Pre-program the numbers she calls the most on her phone, including family members and medical numbers And have her neighbors check on her every so often and give them your family phone numbers. Also get theirs in case you have trouble reaching your mother by phone.
Mary in VA

Help to ‘Stock-Up’

I’m an “elder” living alone and one of the great favors I appreciate from my son is a periodic trip to Costco. Not only can I stock up on necessities at a good price (including pet food and litter), but he hauls the purchases in (there are stairs).

He does this only 3-4 times a year and gives me plenty of notice so I can have a list prepared and shop efficiently. It is not something I can do myself. The large quantity items in cases are often too heavy to even put in the cart. It saves me a lot of money and energy and we have lunch afterward, which makes for a nice day.
Alice S., San Francisco

Insider Advice

I work in rehab with a lot of people in the same situation. Here is my advice:

  • Depending on your mom’s health, you may want to invest in one of those emergency systems that she wears around her neck to call for help. Or at least a small phone to have her carry around the house. Many hospitals have a service where they will call your mom once a day at a agreed on time to check on her.
  • Check lighting around the house, making sure the house is well lit. Remove throw rugs and other fall hazards. Clear doorways and hallways to avoid falls. (See Retirement Spending on Safety a Good Investment.)
  • Use pill boxes, if necessary, for medications. You can organize a week at a time this way. Remove all old medications from the house.
  • Set up items she will use frequently in easy-to-reach areas. Label things as much as possible. Teach microwave safety. Many elderly burn themselves removing over-heated items.
  • Check 911 and make sure her phone number matches her house number. Call at a non-busy time from her phone. Alert the local fire/police department that she now is alone at home.
  • Clean out as much clutter as possible if your parents were pack rats to avoid hazards and prevent fires. Make sure there are several working flashlights and that air conditioning and heating units are up to par.
  • Have a list of emergency phone numbers posted not only for her, but in case 911 or someone had to enter the house to help her.

Lisa C-B

Team Strategy

Before you start helping Mom, I suggest you, your siblings and Mom sit down and figure out what Mom wants to do. Without her cooperation, it will be a lot harder.

What you are able to do will also depend on how “with it” Mom is mentally. Try not to push too hard because in the end you will get the opposite reaction – refusal to do what you want her to do. If something needs to be done and she just isn’t cooperating, then the whole family needs to agree on what to do.

Do not refuse the help of outsiders. Has a neighbor mentioned keeping an eye on her? Does she go to church? Call your local senior center or office to find out what programs are available. Spread these duties around so it is not so hard on your one sister. Consider going to Mom’s when some doctor’s appointments can be made, then your sister gets a break.

Take some frozen homemade meals or make them while you are there.

If Mom gets cranky or difficult, remember that a lot of us are there and you aren’t alone!
Kim J.

A Widow’s Advice

As a recent widow, I would like to share some of the things my family did for me that I found to be very helpful.

  • My husband’s clothing was taken from the closets and dresser drawers and sent to a center for needy families.
  • Tools were sorted and distributed among various recipients. I have had a stroke and cannot use such items.
  • All my windows were secured via sticks custom made to fit each window.
  • A motion light was installed at front and back doors. This discouraged unwelcome visitors and made it easy for me to unlock and enter from outside after dark. (See Low Cost Home Security Tactics.)
  • A smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide alarm were installed in strategic areas. (Several months later the CO alarm alerted me to call the gas company who found a crack in the firebox of my heater!)
  • A survey was made by a visiting nurse who specializes in home safety for the elderly. Her recommendations were put in place, such as a safety grab bar in the shower, removal of several throw rugs, etc.
  • One son had a Lifeline machine installed. Ask about this service at your local hospital. I wear a locket that I can press for assistance in case I feel I need medical attention.
  • Another son went through all the financial records my husband had kept, discarded those records that were no longer needed, and filed all that remained in color-coded folders with nice big letters so I could read them. I can keep my records up to date so that I am pretty self-sufficient except for the actual check-writing. (See Helping Elderly Parents Organize Must-Have Financial Paperwork.)
  • They decided that one of them should have the Power of Attorney and I chose the one who lives in my community. My assets were transferred to his bank, so that he could handle both our banking needs at the same time. (I can rescind the Power of Attorney at any time.)
  • I send my weekly grocery order to him via email and he buys my groceries when he buys his groceries. My groceries are paid for separately and he brings me my receipt along with my groceries.
  • I keep less than one hundred dollars in my house and let all persons soliciting my business or charity know that they will have to speak with my son, since he controls my money. (None have taken me up on the offer.)
  • I shop for clothing mostly by catalog, although my friends and family are quite willing to take me to the mall.
  • I contacted the local senior services organization for once-a-month housecleaning services and used the service for three months until I recovered enough strength to do it myself.
  • They also put me in touch with a hairdresser who comes to my house and cuts my hair by appointment.

My sons, their wives and children still continue their support via email, phone calls, and visits, as their busy schedules allow. I have been invited to live with them, but, God willing, I will continue to maintain my own home.
Margaret S.

Make Finances Easier

A good suggestion is to have all utilities automatically withdrawn from her checking account. This saves writing checks, looking for stamps, remembering when to pay, etc. Also, have two people besides Mom on the checking account. (See How to Ease into Helping Elderly Parents with Their Finances.)

Have a list of her medications off site. Place this list with her physician and have her carry it in her purse. In case of illness, it is hard to remember what kind of pills in which dosage.

I would also recommend printing up (in large print on 8×11 sheets) grocery lists of things Mom buys. Place in categories and let her check off what she needs. Place odd items or seldom purchased things on here to remind her. (You might want to add panty hose, bird seed, etc., at the bottom) You can take the list to the store and grocery trips will be easier.

Check to see if she is eligible for home nursing, Medicaid, etc.

I suggest telling the sister in advance when she is coming, so that her sister can plan to spend a weekend away or doing something special for herself.

Arrange to have someone dependable do her yard on a regular basis. Perhaps a neighbor could use the extra money.

Spend a Little for Convenience

  1. Prepare a folder or box with a supply of stamped envelopes (and some loose stamps), stationary, pens, and return address labels, so she can stay in touch with you (and her other friends) easily and inexpensively.
  2. At holidays and/or during your visits, prepare a “deluxe gift basket,” filled with shelf-stable staples such as cans of tuna fish, jars of applesauce, single-portion fruit juices, etc. Pre-packed portion-control servings of items used in children’s lunch boxes will make it easy for her to grab a snack or a light meal without a lot of preparation and cleanup time. Buy them in bulk, if you can, and arrange them in her pantry (grouped by category, preferably at eye level, within easy reach) so she won’t have to “root around” for a particular item when putting together a meal.
  3. Ask a local school kid to stop by her house several times a week to pick up her outgoing mail, deliver newspapers and magazines, and bring certain perishables (milk, eggs, bread, etc.) from the grocery store. Depending on your community, someone might be happy to do this for a minimal fee. The local school may be willing to make a referral.

These ideas may sound like non-frugal expenses, but they could be well worth the comfort and security they bring to you, your mother, and your siblings.
Hollis W., New York, NY

Reviewed August 2021

You deserve a comfortable retirement.

Subscribe to After 50 Finances, our weekly newsletter dedicated to people 50 years and older. Each issue features financial topics and other issues important to the 50+ crowd that can help you plan for a comfortable retirement even if you haven't saved enough.

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You deserve a comfortable retirement.

Subscribe to After 50 Finances, our weekly newsletter dedicated to people 50 years and older. Each issue features financial topics and other issues important to the 50+ crowd that can help you plan for a comfortable retirement even if you haven't saved enough.

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