Roles Reverse

Longer lives mean more ‘kids’ care for parents

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 18
Donna L. Conway of Keene spends three evenings a week with her 88-year-old mother, Mildred E. Davis, having dinner, talking about daily goings-on and planning for upcoming doctor appointments.

For the past six years, Conway, 68, and her sister, Charlotte R. Veysey, 64, of Swanzey, have been sharing the responsibility of caring for their mother, who has symptoms of dementia.

“She’s still independent and she can be stubborn sometimes,” Conway said. “But it was starting to get to the point where we worried about her being on her own.”

Davis lives with Veysey in Swanzey and Conway helps by bringing her to appointments and having her over for dinner a few nights a week.

With the number of people 85 and older among the fastest growing population in New Hampshire, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections, Conway and Veysey are among a climbing number of adult children facing decisions about how to care for aging parents when they can no longer manage on their own.

Dr. Lisa A. Leinau, a geriatrician at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, says as medical advances have kept people alive longer, they have also brought new challenges.

“Everyone talks about how the baby boomers are aging, and thankfully people aren’t dying of the heart diseases and cancers that they used to die of earlier,” Leinau said. “But this means more people will live to develop dementia or physical disabilities that require them to need help with the daily activities of living.”

And as busy working boomers look for ways to care for their aging parents as they raise families of their own, more are reaching out for options such as home health aides and adult day programs that offer health and social services for elderly people during the day when they might otherwise be left at home alone, Leinau said.

Davis spends her weekdays at the Castle Center Adult Day Program at Keene’s Home Healthcare, Hospice and Community Services, which Conway says has been important for her mother’s health and mental well-being.

“She gets to socialize there,” Conway said. “She loves to get involved and my sister and I agree that if she hadn’t been going there, she probably wouldn’t be with us. She’d have wasted away.”

Davis says she enjoys the program because it gives her a chance to do arts and crafts, play cards and meet with friends she’s made at the center.

Socialization is a major goal of the program, which has about 30 participants, along with providing caregivers a respite from the constant pressures of caring for their elderly parents, says Susan G. Ashworth, the nonprofit organization’s director of community relations.

During weekdays, the program provides transportation, health services, meals and activities for elderly people and people with disabilities.

Ashworth says the program has grown since it began in 1987, but now more than ever families are looking for help to keep elderly parents home as long as possible.

“It’s big leap to go from living independently to going to a nursing home,” Ashworth said. “There’s a whole continuum now and we want to let caregivers know the range is not as black and white as what it used to be.”

And Lucille F. Stowell, Castle Center program manager, says as the state government searches for ways to save money, she thinks there will be an increased focus on community-based services that keep elderly people at home, rather than send them to nursing homes.

A report released this month by AARP showed that 84 percent of retired people in New Hampshire who were surveyed support shifting state funding from nursing homes toward home- and community-based services.

“It’s really much more cost effective if people are able to stay in their homes for longer,” Stowell said.

The Castle Center program costs around $60 per day, but many participants qualify for a Medicaid program for the elderly or scholarships that reduce or eliminate fees, said Ashworth.

“When people come to us, they’re often overwhelmed and exhausted,” Ashworth said. “They’re here because they need help and the last thing we want them to have to worry about is the cost.”

Keith McKane, 47, of Keene, whose 84-year-old mother, Priscilla McKane, recently began attending the Castle Center, says learning the ins and outs of caregiving has been one of the biggest challenges.

“Everything was a new adventure,” said Keith McKane, who shares the responsibility for caring for his mother with his brother, Morgan. His other brother, Jon, lives in Montana and helps by telephone, and visits when he can, Keith McKane said.

When they began looking into the day program and getting a home health aide who spends a few hours a day with his mother, Keith McKane says he didn’t realize how monumental the task of gathering and arranging his mother’s personal, financial, medical and legal documents would be.

“There’s a checklist that isn’t in any one easily found place of things you need to get as an adult caring for an aging parent,” McKane said.

He had to dig up records about his parents, such as birth and death certificates and financial documents, which McKane says wasn’t always comfortable for him.

McKane says having his brothers share the responsibility of caring for their mother has helped.

“When you have a brother or sister working with you, you have someone to help you,” McKane said. “There’s a team-up that can bring families closer together and help when you have to make big decisions. And it’s better to make that decision before something bad happens.”

There are also day-to-day challenges, including helping an elderly parent bathe or use the toilet, that many caregivers aren’t initially prepared for, says Stowell, who runs caregiver support groups at the Castle Center.

The groups, which are free, offer caregivers an opportunity to share tips and discuss personal experiences, Stowell says.

Leinau, a geriatrician who treats elderly people in the hospital, says with more resources available than ever, she hopes caregivers will reach out for help when they need it.

“We’re frequently meeting families who’ve known there was a problem for years sometimes but never reached out for help,” Leinau said. “Contact a geriatrician or tell your primary care doctor about any problems that you might notice.”

For Conway, having outside support in caring for her mother has helped to make a difficult situation slightly easier.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” Conway said of the Castle Program. “You want the best for your parents because of all they’ve done for you, and there’s nothing wrong with having help.”