Skip to main content

Here are five things people should know about aging before they reach crisis mode.sanjagrujic/Getty Images/iStockphoto

When it comes to pregnancy, there's an entire industry devoted to getting parents and everyone around them ready: preparatory books, parenting seminars, blogs, magazines and government-supported websites and resources. Not to mention the many friends and family eager to offer support, gifts and (possibly unsolicited) advice.

Why isn't this true of aging? Few people anticipate their needs by moving into single-storey housing or prepurchasing walkers and shower grab bars. Presumably it is not naturally as thrilling; people don't look forward to getting older, requiring more help or having reduced physical or mental abilities. Google "what to expect when you're aging" and you'll mostly find dermatology tips and advice on whether it's "okay to keep your hair long."

I specialize in emergency medicine with a focus in geriatrics and I've dealt with hundreds of elderly patients, whose ailments range from toe pain to life-threatening pneumonia. I've witnessed the bumpy roads faced by patients and families when big changes happen and they are simply not ready. Most often, I see them in crisis, but if I had had the chance to see them years earlier, here are five things I wish they (and everyone else) could know.

1. There's a good chance you're going to need some new digs

Everyone will have some reduction in physical ability as they age. Think about whether your current housing is ready for that. Is your arrangement easily modifiable? Could you convert the main-floor den into a bedroom? Is the bathroom doorway wide enough to accommodate a walker? If the answer to your questions is no, could you move somewhere else? Maybe there are seniors' apartments down the street that you always thought looked nice – consider checking out their website, doing a tour, inquiring about cost, wait times and what services they offer.

2. Other people might control your money

Many people will end up having a representative making financial and health-care decisions for them. They are not supposed to be making decisions for you, but rather acting as an extension of you and making the decisions that you would if you could. Decide who they are and have the "awkward conversations." Tell them about how you imagine your older life unfolding, what your philosophies are. These discussions will make things so much easier for them down the road.

Your person may not be who you would expect. It could be a spouse, a child or a nephew, but I have met all sorts of surprise representatives. I once met a lady in her 90s whose power of attorney was the police officer who took away her husband's licence when she pulled him over a decade earlier. The caring officer was concerned about how the couple would fare having lost their collective ability to drive and checked up on them a few times. One thing led to the next and they became good friends and, later, this lady chose the officer to be her person.

3. (On that note) One day, you might not have a driver's licence

Think about your neighbourhood and your community. Do you have the things you need within walking or transit distance? Does your grocery store deliver? How about your pharmacy? How much does it cost you to operate your car and could you budget that same amount for taxis? Have you learned to use Uber yet?

4. You might love to cook now, but that could change

If you didn't cook as often or didn't cook at all, where would your food come from? Maybe your kids could pay you back for the food that you sent with them to college and fill your freezer with prepared meals. Maybe you could use a service such as Meals on Wheels or test out the new wave of home-delivery food services such as Feast or Just Eat that are popping up across the country. Or maybe you've moved into the seniors' building that we talked about and they provide meals.

5. You might get lonely

A lot of elderly people tell me they are alone and that they feel sad about it. This can be difficult when someone needs help, but more importantly, people like companionship. Meals are more fun, workloads can be divided and people are more likely to participate in an activity if they have a buddy.

There are lots of ways to address this – join a group, get a pet, move in with family, move to a complex with other seniors and check out the activities. Some folks also choose to move in with a roommate.

Bottom line: We ought to anticipate needs of aging in the same way that we prepare for a new baby. So don't wait. Next time you sit down with your family or close friends talk to them about how you see your life unfolding as you age. Tell your daughter what paint colour you might like if you moved your bedroom to the main floor. See if you can find the latest Consumer Reports on walkers.

And maybe someday your Google search will turn up a guide on "What to Expect When You (or Your Loved One) Is Aging," complete with links to local resources, and a way to bring people together to share their experiences and knowledge.

Courtney Spelliscy is a physician in Toronto.