Caring for an aging parent or loved one can be an emotionally draining experience. It is estimated that almost 35 million Americans serve as caregivers in some fashion for an elderly relative. That number is certain to rise as baby boomers age. Nevertheless, seeing a parent or relative who was once young and vibrant now requiring assistance with many simple chores can sometimes be overwhelming.

There are many issues when caring for the elderly. Some, such as the aging process itself, are obviously out of our control. However, simple changes in the way we interact with or assist our loved ones can positively affect the quality of their lives.

For example, injuries are a frequent problem. The most common injury is from a fall. Falls are a result of balance issues caused by orthopedic problems (such as arthritis) or neurologic issues (such as numbness and weakness of the legs and arms). Another common problem is medication errors. As we age, our cognitive ability -- the ability to think and process information -- declines. This leads to issues with judgment and memory, resulting in mistakes while taking (or forgetting to take) daily medications. Additionally, diseases such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections are quite common due to a compromise in the immune system in the elderly.

Evan Goldberg of Burlington, Vt., is caring for his elderly parents.

"The whole process is just really sad," Goldberg said. "It can be difficult to find the time to grieve. Seeing them lose large portions of their independence has been the hardest part for me, while it has been inspiring to see them maintain their dignity in the face of tremendous challenges."

Evan expressed that in retrospect he wishes he had done more to prepare. "What I should have done earlier was to do whatever was necessary to make the house more physically accessible for them. Fortunately, we started using visiting nurses care, home physical therapists and other caregivers, which has been very helpful."

Evan is not alone in struggling to assist his parents.

Here are some simple ways to help:

Accompany them to their doctor visits. Often, there is so much information discussed that it is common for the patient to be confused and forget what needs to be done.

Review medications frequently and place them in an easy-to-use weekly pill dispenser.

Arrange for a geriatric consult. Geriatric specialists are physicians who perform a comprehensive overall assessment to determine both the medical and social needs of the patient.

Make sure they receive a pneumonia shot every eight years and an annual flu vaccine in order to decrease the risk of infections.

Medicare offers a "Welcome to Medicare" examination when a patient turns 65, and a yearly "Medicare Wellness Examination" to monitor the health and preventative needs of our seniors.

Plan ahead. Discuss the wishes of your loved ones concerning health care, home care and placement if necessary. Create a living will.

Have hearing assessed on a regular basis. Loss of hearing greatly affects the quality of life.

Alert wrist bracelets or necklaces insure that your family member is never alone. A push of a button will notify you (and emergency medical personnel) in the event of an urgent medical issue.

To decrease the risk of falls, place grab bars in bathrooms and handrails on stairways. Also, remove throw rugs from the home and ensure that there is adequate lighting.

Walkers and canes can help prevent falls and give the patient a sense of security.

Assist with meal preparation, transportation and shopping. These small gestures can make a world of difference in their daily lives.

Review finances; assisting with issues such as unpaid bills will alleviate undue stress.

Driving presents many challenges for seniors as their reaction time might have become diminished. Also, eyesight is not as sharp as we age. Discuss this issue with their doctor to better ascertain any potential dangers.

Senior programs offer activities for the elderly. These activities not only occupy their time, but their minds as well.

Most important, make time for yourself. As the caregiver, stress and anxiety can adversely affect your life as well. The care you give will only be as good as your own emotional well-being and energy level.

As medical science advances, people are living longer than before. The goal of life is not just longevity, but quality. Few people are adequately prepared to handle the demands and stresses of caring for an aging loved one. However, patience, love and understanding will go a long way in making the voyage easier for everyone involved.

Dr. Michael Schwartz is board certified in internal medicine with a private practice in Darien. For comments or questions, visit his website at www.drmichaelbschwartz.com.

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