Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Driving Me Crazy

By Emily Anderson

The three sisters were enjoying their monthly get together for soup and sandwiches when Annabelle brought up a strange story about their mom. “The other day she got lost on her way to my house!” she exclaimed, mystified. “She’s been there hundreds of times, but this time she took a wrong turn, called me from her cell phone and was so confused. It was bizarre.”

“You know what?” piped up Bethany, “I was at her house the other day and noticed that her car has a dent in the back bumper. She told me that she backed into the basketball hoop, but I got to looking and she has three or four dents and dings on her car now that she couldn’t explain.”

“OK, I hadn’t said anything about this because I didn’t know what to think,” Cathy says sheepishly, “But when we rode back from the holiday party together, Mom kept drifting over the center line into the oncoming traffic. We must have had ten cars honk at us, and I was half convinced we were going to get in an accident.”

Silence fell over the table as the three sisters looked at each other. It was out in the open now, they all knew was becoming unsafe for Mom to drive. But what were they supposed to do now?

Watch for Falling Rocks

There are many different reasons that driving can become more difficult with age. Stiff or painful joints, worsening eyesight, and difficulty hearing might affect a person’s ability to notice and respond to risks on the road. Reflexes get slower as we age too, so it becomes more challenging to react quickly to dangers, especially in busy traffic.

On top of that, many older adults take medications that have side effects like drowsiness, dizziness, or lightheadedness. In the story above, some of the driving problems the sisters have noticed could be due to difficulty seeing, hearing, or reacting quickly, like not noticing the basketball hoop while you’re backing up or having difficulty seeing the center line when driving at night.

A loved one in the early stages of dementia, though, might begin to get confused about driving skills that should be second nature. Annabelle’s story of her mother getting lost in a familiar place is one example of a driving problem that could be related to dementia.
Here are some other signs that a person is having more difficulty driving:

  • Traffic or parking tickets
  • Repeated minor accidents
  • Driving way too fast or too slow
  • Making poor or slow decisions
  • Failing to notice traffic signs
  • Drifting through lanes without using a signal
  • Becoming angry, overwhelmed, or nervous while driving

Even if you haven’t observed these signs yourself, if your loved one is having trouble at home with coordination, multitasking, or making decisions, it might be a good time to take a look at their driving.

Greenlighting the Conversation

Driving is about more than just “getting around”; it is a powerful symbol of independence and freedom. Giving it up can feel like a tremendous loss for people, and admitting that your body is aging and you need help is frightening and humbling. It also just makes the logistics of getting around difficult—try giving up your car for a few days and see how you feel about it!

Caregivers often sense how difficult this step is, and put off talking about it, but are also tortured with worry that their loved one will get hurt or hurt someone else. An important note here is that a diagnosis of dementia alone is not enough to take away someone’s right to drive, but it will eventually make them incapable of driving safely. In the early stages of dementia, you can choose to make plans with your loved one about what they want to do when the time comes.

Whether your loved one has dementia or not, it is good to start talking about driving. Some older adults have noticed the problems themselves and welcome a chance to ask for support and come up with solutions. Others will feel upset, angry, hurt, or defensive when you bring it up.

How and when to stop driving as we age is a challenging topic. It’s too complex to fully address in one blog post, and it’s going to be too complex to deal with in one talk with your loved one. This will likely be an ongoing conversation in which you try to help your loved one balance safety with the lifestyle they want to lead. At first you might negotiate for them to drive only during the day, to places they know well, or short distances on quiet streets, for example.

Focus on expressing your concerns about safety, but also be supportive in understanding their perspective and helping them maintain independence. You might need to take more proactive steps later, but start by having a one-on-one conversation about their worries, hopes, and goals.

For more in-depth steps on how to have a sensitive conversation about driving, consider checking out this free seminar from the AARP.

Detours Ahead

Hopefully, you’ve started a conversation with your loved one about driving. In the meantime, here are some other steps to consider:

1. Monitor their driving when possible

Ride along with your loved one and communicate with family members, friends, and neighbors about what they observe.

2. Minimize the need for them to drive 

Offer rides to the activities they enjoy, take them with you when you go grocery shopping, or arrange for medicines to be delivered. Visit them at home instead of asking them to come to your house.

3. Empower them to try other options 

Help them get comfortable by riding the bus together, signing up for senior ride programs in your area, or calling a cab. There are many people who offer their services as drivers for older adults, so you could help your loved one find and interview an errand driver. You want to help your loved one to see that they will still be able to lead a fulfilling life after they give up driving. 

4. Talk to their doctor 

If you do continue to observe a decline in driving skills, talk to your loved one’s doctor about getting an evaluation.
Stay safe!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Getting a Grip on Arthritis

by Emily Anderson

Whether you've migrated south or burrowed in to face the brisk winds of winter, both you and your loved one might be dealing with more arthritis pain. Arthritis affects more than 50 million people in the U.S. across the age spectrum. It is more common, however, as we age and accumulate wear and tear on our bodies, to the point that arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. In spite of how common arthritis is, we have no way to cure it and only some ideas on how to prevent it.

We do, however, have some good ideas on how to manage it. As winter months drag on and aches and pains get you down or keep your loved one frozen in their favorite armchair, consider these tips from the Arthritis Foundation:

1. Be organized

Keep track of pain levels, natural treatments and management strategies, medications you use, and possible side effects. These are useful for figuring out what works against the pain and can be useful information to share with your doctor.

2. Stay active

It may seem counterintuitive, but light exercise can help lift some arthritis pain. It increases circulation to your joints, strengthens muscles that support your bones, and can help you lose some weight that makes the pain worse. Don't know where to start, especially in the cold weather? Try the Arthritis Foundation's guide for some exercises tailored to your needs!

3. Balance activity with rest

Painful, swollen, and stiff joints are a sign that you need some rest. Talk to your doctor about pain medicine and over-the-counter solutions, and try hot or cold packs to ease the swelling.

4. Eat healthy

A healthy diet is part of maintaining a healthy weight, which takes a load off arthritic joints. Eating foods that have "anti-inflammatory" properties can help too. Not sure which foods are "anti-inflammatory"? Thankfully, the Arthritis Foundation has a very detailed arthritis-friendly diet guide, including some recipes.

5. Sleep well

Take time to wind down in the evening with some quiet activities or relaxation techniques. Getting sufficient sleep boosts the spirits and can help provide enough energy for another day of activity!

If you still haven't clicked on a link to go explore the Arthritis Foundation website, here's a last chance: check out their "Tools & Resources" page for many free resources, including tracking tools, pamphlets, exercise tips, medication guides, and much more!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Get Smart--January

by Emily Anderson

With the new year comes a whole new set of opportunities! We'll keep you posted on classes and events in the Allegheny County region that you and other caregivers might enjoy. Here are a few to get you started!

Powerful Tools for Caregivers

This six-week course focuses on helping caregivers develop tools to manage stress, practice good self-care, make difficult decisions, and communicate emotional needs. More than 80,000 caregivers have taken this class across the U.S., and most report that it helps them feel less anxious, more confident, and more in control.

The class starts on March 24th and will be held each Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon at the Area Agency on Aging. Spaces are limited, so call Brenda Slagle at 412-350-4996 or email her at to reserve a spot!

American Red Cross Family Caregivers Series

The Red Cross Caregivers series focuses on teaching practical skills for taking care of a loved one. The topics covered include helpful information such as how to give someone a bed bath, home safety, helping people move without hurting yourself, dealing with financial or legal matters, and more.

This four-week course starts May 4th and is held each Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Area Agency on Aging. That sounds pretty far away, but it's never too soon to contact Brenda Slagle and reserve a spot. Call her at 412-350-4996 or email her at!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

New Year, New You

By Emily Anderson

Traditionally, this is the time of year when we resolve to become better people, take care of ourselves, learn new skills, and so on. Some people think resolutions are cliché or maybe even jinxed, but I think they are a fantastic way to take charge of your life and how you feel.

When we meet with people in our program, the Caregivers First Initiative, we help people set and attain goals for taking care of themselves and their loved ones. Here are some ways to make sure your ideas for the “new you” become real:

1. Set small goals 

Part of the problem with resolutions is that our old habits feel easy and changing them is hard. A goal of “become an ultra-marathon runner” could intimidate you right out of even beginning to change your habits. “Run a mile” might sound underwhelming, but it’s easier to get started with and will feel rewarding when you reach it.   

2. Make them specific 

“Be more patient” and “Relax more” are great ideas, but they are more like mission statements than goals. Put a number and a specific idea with it, and you have a goal! For example: “I want to be patient three times today when I talk to my dad on the phone,” or “I will relax once a week by drinking tea and watching the birds at my feeders.”

3. Give yourself reminders 

It’s easy to slip back into old patterns and forget for days or weeks that you even wanted to try something different. Writing notes, keeping a journal, or getting a buddy to help you will prevent your goals from fading away slowly. If you’re tech-savvy, try an app to remind you! 

4. Plan to reward yourself 

Some goals, like taking a weekend vacation, are naturally rewarding. Other goals…not so much. Give yourself something to work towards! Some people put a dollar in a jar each time they practice a new habit and then use the money to buy themselves something special. No punishing yourself though—you think that taking dollars out of that jar will help motivate you even more, but you’ll just wind up feeling dejected.

If you want to read more about making goals that really work, check out this article on the science of goals and happiness.

Happy habit changing!