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Better elder care urged

Author says that families need to start planning

Death and money are two subjects few people feel comfortable broaching with their elderly parents.

That's a misstep adult children often take in what often becomes a long and daunting journey of caring for a parent whose needs related to age can quickly overwhelm them.

"The biggest mistake is not planning for what lies ahead or not realizing what is coming your way," said Virginia Morris.

Morris, author of the newly released edition of "How to Care for Aging Parents," is in Salt Lake City today to deliver the keynote speech at the Utah Caregivers Conference hosted by the Salt Lake Elder Council.

It is the first stop in a 20-city tour Morris is making across the country to promote the 691-page book described by the American Association of Retired Persons as "indispensable."

The book is an encyclopedia of sorts offering a wide range of advice to adult children of aging parents — from spotting signs of the "body imperfect" to legal steps such as wills, advance directives and power of attorney.

"It is so important that people plan ahead," Morris told the Deseret Morning News. "But it is the one thing nobody does."

But such planning, Morris said, is much easier to embrace before a crisis starts.

"For most people, it is not an issue now, they wait until Mom has a stroke."

Statistics by AARP show that by 2007, the number of households with someone caring for an elderly person will reach 39 million. The group 85 and over remains the fastest-growing segment of the population, with more than half needing some help with personal care, according to census data.

Morris says the demographics of aging America will continue to pose interesting and "weird" challenges as people continue to live longer.

"Children ages 30 even on up to age 80 are caring for their parents," she said. "It was never meant to be this way. . . . It is going to get weird having people live so long."

She cited one example of an 80-year-old person upset at having to move into a nursing home because a parent was still able to live independently.

Aside from tips on long-distance caregiving, what to expect at the moment of death and ways to choose appropriate care, the book provides close to 60 pages of associations and contact numbers in a section called "Yellow Pages for Help." First published in 1996, the book should be hitting the stores soon and includes new sections and updated reference information.

Morris said in addition to recognizing the need for planning, adults who take on the role of caregiver for an aging adult are seldom prepared for the monumental responsibility involved.

"It is such a hard job, but we can't figure out why it is so hard to do," Morris said, adding that it is simply natural for a child to want to step in to take care of an aging parent.

"People need to set some limits, stop trying to do everything and accept help — help from friends, neighbors and community services," she said. "Ironically, stepping back turns out to be better for the parent."