Aging parents

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by L.G. William Chapman B.A., LL.B.

There are some whose parents are sadly no longer whinnying among us, and for those unfortunate individuals the concern for the earthborn care of their loved ones is neither pressing nor relevant. Their loss, their grief and adjustments have already transpired. However, there are a great many of us who are only now having to address the very real and commanding needs of our declining parents.

In some instances the medical needs of a parent are so obvious that there is no alternative but long-term care perhaps even as critical as palliative care. It hardly bears remark that such a choice is often crushing and frightening for all concerned. Nature is seldom pusillanimous in its dispensations and it takes a brave heart to face the indiscriminate repercussions of living (and dying).

It is not however uncommon to hit upon a course (not surprisingly promoted largely by the enfeebled parents themselves) which is directed solely at maintaining them in their family home. I believe there is both scientific and psychological support for this avenue as incompatible as it may be with the popular preference (at least in our current urban culture) for retirement and nursing homes. Nonetheless when parents are faced with the manifest difficulty of coping with stairs and other locomotive challenges it is less than cogent to preserve what at times appears to be hardly an ideal situation, and maybe even one which is perilous.

Aging parents, like most organisms, cleverly learn to adapt to their state of affairs to the point of giving the outward panorama of being blind to the noticeable concerns, frequently at the risk of personal affliction. What trumps these health concerns is the positive advantage to the preservation of the private domain of the parents, even when the edges of that domain are noticeably frayed.


For those of us who continue to enjoy the privilege of mobility (not just within the confines of a house but elsewhere in the world whether by walking, cycling or automobile) it is no doubt hard to appreciate the narrowing scope of life for elderly people who suffer escalating confinement. It is thankfully for one’s worsening parents a product of physical deterioration that the motivation for travel diminishes commensurately, but one never wants to minimize the engagement entirely.

Having said that I acknowledge that there are some elderly people who readily admit that their days of household management and cleaning, grocery shopping and food preparation are all but over, and they indeed welcome the prospect of a retirement home with everything on one floor, wide hallways, swinging door on the bathtub, handrails and catered meals in the dining room. Granted this emasculation of one’s household and gardening skills is not on everyone’s agenda; such excision may in time represent a greater threat to one’s continued happiness than having to persevere in the face of the alternate prospect.

Likely many of the "baby boomers" were treated extremely well by their parents, even – dare I say it – spoiled. Having to reverse the role of care-giver between parent and child is not without its surprises and abrupt demands. At a time when many baby boomers are warming to the idea of retirement, the prospect of having to restrain their vagabond inclinations and to keep a guarded eye upon one’s infirm parents is not especially glamourous and may even deoxidize one’s plans.

I am here bound to share an experience I had years ago in Nova Scotia while studying there. One Thanksgiving weekend I was invited to the country home of a family in New Glasgow. Upon arriving there I was introduced not only to the other junior members of the family but also to the elderly mother of the father of the household. The grandmother had her own room on the third floor, and she relished telling us that she kept the gin under her bed! Having been exported from Upper Canada, I was unaccustomed to seeing the elderly in such close proximity to the younger generation, and I had the distinct impression that this generosity was more peculiar to the open-hearted Easterners than to the citified likes of Torontonians. This may be mere codswallop, but I am inclined to think there was more than economics at play, rather an active desire to continue to involve the elderly in meaningful and regular family activity, something which was valued as joint profit.

Closer to home I knew of one family here in Almonte who not so many years ago did everything possible for their elderly mother to allow her to remain in her own home, including for example the relocation of her sleeping quarters to the main floor of her large, old house and the employment of non-professional staff around the clock on eight-hour shifts to keep an eye on things. This may sound like an exorbitantly expensive proposition but I venture to say that, compared to the cost of some nursing homes and residential care homes for seniors, the difference in price may have been negligible. Naturally the continued. ability of the elderly person to manage herself in regular daily routine was an important factor in this scenario, even when she began to become more than a little dotty.

As crass as it may seem to discuss it, I have heard it bandied about that one should unload one’s home more than three years before taking up residence in a nursing home because the government claws into the formula for calculation of your residency fees the value of your assets that far back. To my knowledge (quite apart from the gymnastics of planning one’s decline to the day) this is not currently the case; rather, I believe residency fees are determined in accordance with income which in turn is reflected in one’s most recent Notice of Assessment from Canada Revenue Agency. As such, having the benefit of a "free and clear" homestead does nothing to jeopardize the costs one might otherwise face in any event.

On a related subject, there is a groundswell of interest in avoiding probate fees, the government fees associated with the value of one’s estate when it is necessary to "prove" (probate) one’s last Will and Testament. Generally speaking probate is a consideration where assets are in the name of the deceased person alone without a joint survivor; or where the insurance policy or investment plan has no designated beneficiary. That is, whenever the asset must be funneled through the Will (the estate) it may be necessary to probate one’s Will.

To overcome this eventuality one frequently hears of people transferring the ownership of their assets (real estate, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, etc.) to themselves and their child(ren) as Joint Tenants (with Right-of-Survivorship). This tactic can however be fraught with problems (at least if there is no accompanying Declaration of Trust which confirms that the asset is solely and beneficially owned by the elderly parent during his or her lifetime). Otherwise, the asset is technically exposed to the creditors of the child (including his or her spousal claims); the transfer to joint names may defeat the characterization of the family home as the principal residence of the parent (making it partly an investment property of the child) which in turn exposes the property to capital gains tax upon its ultimate disposition. Additionally, the wishes of the parent may be to divide his or her assets among a number of children, rather than to benefit one child only. It is not wise to rely upon the child(ren) to "do the right thing".

Many parents are determined to do everything themselves, either to avoid being a burden on others, or to fuel their own personal satisfaction. There are however many non-intrusive sources of assistance for the elderly, not simply sources of financial assistance. No doubt as a product of the huge aging population there are burgeoning businesses which cater exclusively to the assistance of the elderly, among them security companies and chauffeurs who will take people to the doctor, assist them to get to the office and then wait for them. The internet puts these invaluable resources at one’s fingertips. Employment of these resources should be seen as a mere tool which aids in the preservation of independence for those who are determined to stay in their own home. The list of possibilities is almost infinite, among them gardeners, snow removal, junk removal, paper shredding and eventually relocation. Some organizations are dedicated to finding a suitable retirement home.

Finally, the local hospital and seniors’ organizations have a wealth of knowledge and information to assist the family in transition. Getting old is not all bad.