Entourage: doctor

Taking control of getting old

Dr. Amy D’Aprix as interviewed by Dana Lacey

Financial Post June 13, 2009

In this second of a five-part series, FP profiles the best people to surround yourself with to better your odds of living longer, healthier and wealthier. This week, in her own words, Dr. Amy D’Aprix, a gerontological social worker and caregiving expert, talks about something nobody likes to talk about — ageing. Coming up: a banker, a lawyer and an accountant.

Caregiving is anything that supports the independence or improves the quality of life for a senior. That could be emotional support you are providing long-distance, or bathing and grooming and dressing, but there’s a lot in between.

There are about four million caregivers in Canada, and that number is growing significantly. Because we’re living so much longer, people are becoming caregivers later in life. Lots of folks are caring for their ageing parents as they themselves enter retirement, which is not something people usually anticipate. We start caregiving for the generation that came before us, then we move on to caring for our own generation — our spouses, our friends, our siblings. A lot of people will spend more time caregiving then they do parenting. It’s not something we talk about, or when we do we give it a negative slant. I don’t think it has to be negative.

I did it for a decade with my parents, and professionally for the past 25 years. It can be one of the greatest experiences of life; you get to close relationships and make peace with people. It changes your perspective. But unless they’re engaged in it, people don’t think that they’re likely to be doing it. When you become a parent, you have nine months to get ready, but when you become a caregiver you might not have nine minutes to prepare. People are often launched into caregiving in a crisis situation such as a stroke, a heart attack or a fall.

FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

There are ways to ensure you age well. Some things we all know: Improve your diet, exercise, get enough sleep, manage your stress. It’s good to drop weight and drink less. Brushing and flossing your teeth has a huge impact on your health: There is a link between some heart disease and the bacteria in your mouth.

But a big component of ageing well is having social support. You need people you can count on, for both emotional and task-related support. It helps you live longer and healthier, both mentally and physically. Grow your support system, make friends, volunteer, join groups — anything that connects you with people will improve your brain health. Another way to stay mentally alert is to learn a language later in life. It does great things for your brain.

HAVE YOU HAD THE “TALK?”

There really is something to be said for planning, both on the emotional and the financial side. A lot of issues people run into are based on expectations. Have a family conversation in advance. Get everybody together in the same room, or on a conference call, or hire a mediator to help with the conversation. Talk about expectations: Be open and honest about what you’re willing to do. And be sure to talk to your ageing family member about what he or she wants. People tend to make assumptions such as, “If anything happens we’ll move Mom in with us.” Meanwhile, Mom is saying, “I don’t want to live with you!” A lot of strife occurs because nobody talks. Moving a parent often isn’t the best idea. People are embedded in their communities, which provide another layer of support. The truth is, the older we get, the more we need each other. You wish you saw them more, but you shouldn’t turn everyone’s life upside down to do it.

YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT (BUT YOU CAN GET WHAT YOU NEED)

Every province has community access centres that will help you find out what services are available — daycare, home care, Meals on Wheels, etc. — what costs are involved and how to apply. There’s a huge shortage of government services and there are often waiting lists for facilities. It’s expensive, too. Home care starts at $20 an hour. Of course, you can’t plan everything, but you can get a sense of what is available and do the financial planning beforehand. It’s helpful to talk to a financial advisor about how much money you’ll need and to discuss options such as long-term care insurance.

You should plan for three to five years of caregiving for yourself, not bedridden, just in need of a little help. I think a lot of people don’t plan to live as long as they’re going to live. They’ll say, “My parents both died young.” But that doesn’t count today because we’ve found a lot of ways to cure and treat diseases. The genetic part does count, but what matters more are your behaviour and lifestyle.

People actually have a lot more control over the way they age than they realize. As Boomers plan and look ahead, they have these big dreams about travel or golf, but they never think about the day-to-day of life. Take charge of your retirement and recognize it has multiple stages, beyond the vacation phase.

Of course, because we live in Canada, nobody is going to be forced to live in a cardboard box. There’s a whole range of services that can keep people in their homes and independent. But if you haven’t done the planning, you give up choice, freedom and independence.

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