On their own: helping a relative who is newly alone
By Lisa M. Petsche
When the loved one they have been living with passes away, many older adults face the challenge of learning to live alone—often for the first time.
If there was a division of labor with their partner, they must either learn new life skills—for example, managing the household finances, maintaining their home’s condition inside and out or performing domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning and doing laundry—or obtain help if feasible. If their spouse was the more physically or mentally able of the pair, living independently may pose special challenges.
If you have a parent or other close relative who is new to living alone, read on for some areas of potential concern and how to help.
Medication management - Request a medication review by your relative’s primary physician to determine if all medications being taken are still necessary. Ask their pharmacist about available aids for organizing and remembering to take medications. Ensure all prescriptions are filled at one pharmacy.
Nutrition - Set up a schedule to take your relative grocery shopping, arrange for a grocery delivery service, stock their freezer with heat-and-serve foods or arrange for Meals on Wheels service. Signing them up for a “Cooking for One” class at an adult education center or community center is another idea. If your relative finds it hard to eat alone, encourage them to tie in mealtimes to radio or television programs of interest, look into communal dining programs and regularly have them over for dinner.
Household maintenance - Arrange for regular housecleaning service and, if applicable, yard maintenance service. If your relative has limited income, they may qualify for a subsidized community program. Consult the local office on aging, an excellent source of information on a wide variety of community services.
Transportation - Provide your relative with a bus pass or taxi gift vouchers, or investigate volunteer driver programs for seniors. If necessary, find out about accessible transportation services in their community.
Vision - Ask your relative’s doctor for a referral to an ophthalmologist. If nothing can be done to improve their vision, get them a magnifier for reading small print, and other adaptive items such as a large-keypad telephone and a clock with oversized numbers. List important phone numbers on a poster board (use black lettering on white), and place it on the wall by their phone.
Safety - Perform a safety assessment of your relative’s home to identify potential hazards—for example, clutter, poor lighting and lack of proper stair railings—and do what you can to rectify them. Visit a medical supply store and check out the many products that might make daily activities easier and safer. Sign up your relative with a personal emergency response service, whereby they wear a lightweight, waterproof pendant or bracelet that has a button to press if they run into a crisis and need help.
Finances - If money management is an issue, arrange for direct deposit of pension checks and automatic bill payment from your relative’s bank account. Assist your relative with contacting a lawyer to assign power of attorney for property to one or more people they trust. If they are experiencing financial hardship without their spouse’s income, ensure they apply for all possible government and private benefits, such as survivor’s pensions and income supplements. If necessary, assist them with moving to a smaller house or apartment suite or applying for rent-geared-to-income housing.
If your relative has cognitive impairment and their partner was compensating, deficits may now be more pronounced, or perhaps apparent to you for the first time. If this is the case, arrange through their primary physician for a geriatric assessment. Research home supports such as telephone reassurance services, therapeutic day care programs and home health services that offer personal care, homemaking, nursing, dietary consultation, physical and occupational therapy and social work. A live-in caregiver is another option if finances permit. If your relative needs more help than community programs can provide and the cost of private-pay services is prohibitive, options include moving them in with you or another family member and finding a residential care setting that meets their needs.