Helping an Older Loved One Living Alone with Dementia
By Julie Hayes | 07/15/2021
When your loved one is diagnosed with dementia, it can bring to mind many different fears for their safety. What if they have an accident in the kitchen? What if they wander and get lost? What if they fall and don’t know how to ask for help? When your loved one lives with someone else, like a spouse, roommate or adult child, it can be comforting to know that someone is looking out for them. But when your loved one lives alone, it can be terrifying to think about something happening to them and there being no one around to help.
Many assume that older adults who live alone inevitably transition into assisted living when diagnosed with dementia, but this is not the case. Around one third of people with dementia live on their own, in their own homes. While it does not pose as many concerns in the early-stages of dementia, this arrangement may become increasingly risky in the middle- and late-stages. As a caregiver, you may feel pressure to move in with your loved one or vice versa, or else find them an assisted living arrangement, even if your loved one does not want to leave their home.
Before you make any sudden changes to your loved one’s living situation, it is important to consider their wishes and capabilities, and if it is possible for your loved one to remain in the home given their individual situation. If it is an option, consider the following tips to make sure your loved one is safe and supported while living alone:
Build a network of support and resources
As a caregiver, you will serve an important role in supporting your loved one in their home. With your every visit, you will likely assist with several different tasks, whether preparing meals or helping with personal hygiene. But what about the times you’re unable to be there? At these times, it’s essential to have a network of support. This can include, but is not limited to:
- Friends, family, neighbors and other social connections: It’s impossible to shoulder everything alone, so see if there is anyone in your or your loved one’s network who can help. Perhaps a neighbor can check in during the afternoons to make sure your loved one has eaten lunch, or a member of their faith community can drive them to religious services. Don’t be afraid to ask!
- Home health aides, in-home services and geriatric care managers: Individuals who are professionally trained to assist older adults can be a great help. Home health aides can take care of tasks you are unable to do, or step in at times you are unable to be there. Other in-home services are available for tasks like cooking, cleaning or grocery delivery. If you don’t know where to start, geriatric care managers can help evaluate your situation and connect you with local services that may be a good fit.
- Dementia-related organizations, caregiver support programs and other resources: Several organizations offer support and resources to older adults living alone, as well as caregivers. If you reach out to the Alzheimer’s Association, trained staff can offer you guidance and connect you with local services and programs. Respite services and care coaching programs like Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s WeCare…Because You Do can also help you manage your own needs while taking care of your loved one’s.
Plan ahead for solutions to safety concerns
If you have any concerns about your loved one’s safety while living alone, planning ahead can help avoid scrambling for a solution during a crisis. Consider the following:
- Do a professional or self-administered home safety evaluation. Take necessary safety measures for the kitchen, bathroom and stairs, as they are often high-risk areas for older adults. Good lighting and clear paths are also essential for preventing falls.
- Set up a medical alert system in case your loved one falls, experiences a crisis or wanders. Many of these systems are designed for older adults with dementia, and offer tracking and monitoring in case your older loved one cannot send out the alert themselves.
- Take precautions against wandering, such as installing deadbolts, setting up pressure sensitive mats in front of doors and storing house keys in a safe location before bed.
- Place emergency contact lists throughout the house.
- Look into other dementia-friendly products, such as:
- Pill dispensers to avoid accidental overdosing
- Easy to use phones for emergencies
- Safe eating and drinking devices, such as anti-tipping cups and non-slip placemats
Evaluate the situation
Continue to evaluate how your loved one is doing at home, and if any changes need to be made. Sometimes, even if you do as much as you can to support your loved one living at home, it just isn’t feasible based on their situation. Maybe your loved one’s care needs become too advanced, the availability of support changes or it simply just isn’t safe anymore.
When this happens, it can often feel like a failure. It’s important to remind yourself that it isn’t, and that some circumstances are simply beyond your control. If your loved one can no longer live alone, be empowered to start a conversation with your loved one’s network about what the next steps should be.
This article was written for the Expansion of Dementia-Capable Communities within Urban and Rural Settings in Ohio using Evidence-Based and Informed Programming project, a grant funded by the Administration for Community Living (ACL) . Learn more here.