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Dependency is not the inevitable end of aging. Today people live healthy, active, involved lives well into their eighties and beyond. Increasing numbers of the more than 4000 Canadians who celebrated their 100th birthday (centurions, as I like to think of them) are also living independent lives.

But stereotypes persist even though we have proof that today's "seniors" are not the frail, dependent, doddering individuals that remain the butt of jokes about old age. Ageism is so ingrained in society that we may ignore what we see around us and unconsciously revert to stereotypes when we think about our parents' futures and our own.

"Put them in a home" sounds as dreadful to most children as it does to the parents in question, and yet this persists as the chief role adult children expect to play in their parents' future. (We'll use "parents" here although everything applies to a single parent, too.) In reality, there is much you can do to support your parents' independence without taking over their lives, adding to their stress or making decisions for them.

Since home is headquarters for the new decades-long retirement, housing that preserves and enhances independence, regardless of any physical ills that occur, is an essential environment for successful living. This may be a good place to begin supporting your parents continuing independence.

Caring without intruding

Whether you are 35 and your parents are in their fifties or you're 55 and your parents are over 75, sex and money are two of the most difficult topics to talk to them about. In broaching the subject of where they will live, you may be tackling both these subjects and more, so don't be surprised if you have trouble finding the right moment or the right approach to such conversations. Here are a few jumping off points to consider:

  • Step back and get to know your parents as the adults and individuals they are, not the mom or dad you knew as a child.
  • Offers of help and demonstrations of genuine interest may be enough. Your parents have a lifetime of experience to draw on and they may not need your help - financial or otherwise.
  • If your parents are not already computer and Internet savvy, help them get there. The freedom to explore housing projects on line will leave them well armed to evaluate their choices first hand.
  • Your first task in being useful to your parents as they decide whether their current home is a suitable age-in-place site or whether a move is in order may be to overcome the common belief that a move will put them one step closer to "being put in a home" and losing their independence.
  • Respect your parents' right to live at risk. If you are worried that your parents' home is not a safe, practical environment, resist the urge to pressure them to move. Don't treat them like wayward children by trying to make them feel guilty about staying ("But I worry about you all the time!"). Adopt proactive rather than patronizing approaches. For example, instead of pushing your parents to move before they are ready or before they find something they like, suggest the creation of a separate suite for live-in support or barrier-free renovations that will mean they are not making do but living well until they find what they are looking for in a next home.

    The familiar saying, "You make your own luck," is a good motto to adopt. Lucky people are not rushed into a decision or forced to settle for less. Your parents should feel lucky to have you on their independence team. Editor's note: This article is drawn from "Caring for Your Aging Parents" by PJ Wade (Coles Publishing - ISBN 0-7740-0613-7) with permission of the author.

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