Monica Yant Kinney: New website offers guidance on caring for elderly parents

Posted: August 17, 2011

As an only child living 600 miles from my retired parents, I fear the future. How and where my folks will grow old escapes me. I can't imagine forcing them to move from Indiana to the East Coast, but neither can I bear the thought of tending to their needs from afar.

And so I fret, though slightly less since meeting Diane Menio and exploring a reassuring new website, www.CaregiverGPS.org.

Menio possesses a calming voice in caregiving circles as longtime executive director of the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (www.carie.org).

The nonprofit has for decades operated a helpline (800-356-3606) aiding families researching assisted living, long-term care insurance and other end-of-life issues. When Menio's own mother suddenly declined, the advocate woke up to the need for an online guide to every adult child's nightmare.

"My mother was never going to get dementia." Somehow, she thought she'd be immune.

"Even with all my knowledge and preparation, there I was up in the middle of the night searching for information on the Internet. I wasn't calling anybody. I didn't have my questions formulated. I had a job and a teenager and the situation seemed overwhelming."

Options counseling

With more than 25 percent of the region in the 45-to-64-year-old age group, residents from city to suburbs may soon face similar dilemmas caring for elderly parents. When to step in and force a move? When to listen and heed a loved one's wishes?

The CaregiverGPS offers assistance via surveys about the elderly person's home life, health, income, and support system.

"There are transitions in care that, when they start happening, really freak people out," notes Michelle Mathes, CARIE's director of education and research programs. "Like, 'My mother just fell, I'm beginning to think she can't live at home anymore, what do I do?' We hear that one a lot."

Once the surveys are complete, respondents receive gentle, unbiased "options counseling" - reminders about the need to get documents in order before a loved one loses mental capacity, transportation guides or advice on how to research continuing care facilities.

Mount Airy's Darlene Childs, who helped test the website before it went live, only wishes it had been operating when she began her adventures in caregiving.

"When I started caring for my sister with cancer, there was just so much I didn't know," says Childs, who has since helped seven relatives cope with old age and disease. "I had to do the legwork myself."

The CaregiverGPS made her feel "more confident and empathetic for seniors. People need to know there's help to get through any situation they may encounter."

Caregiving test drive

My 60-something parents aren't sick, but still I decide to take CaregiverGPS for a test drive. So I click on the category that speaks to me: "How can I manage being a long-distance caregiver?"

I zip through the first set of questions, feeling proud and relieved that I already have their living wills and power of attorney. My folks are such planners, they even prepaid for their cremation.

But then, a few questions later, I realize I don't know any of their doctors' names or numbers. We've never talked about what medicine they take. I have no clue where they bank. I don't even know their Social Security numbers.

Beyond visiting my 91-year-old Granny at her "senior living community," I know nothing about housing options should my folks be unable to age in place. Most terrifying, we've never made a plan for what to do in case of a health emergency - theirs or mine, since I'm all they've got.

I send the links to my mother, who assures me much of what I seek sits in my safety deposit box. But we agree to talk more about the far-off future that is closer than either of us care to admit.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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