TORONTO - James Watzke is a gerontologist and internationally known for his work on housing for seniors, so you'd expect when his own parents started having mobility issues, everything would be under control.
"It was part of my vocation . . . to take care of seniors and understand their challenges," Watzke says.
His folks lived in a suburban, ranch-style detached home in Washington state, with his two sisters living close by. His father had vision-destroying macular degeneration and had to stop driving. The couple was becoming isolated so Watzke and his sisters took them to see assisted living centres and got them on waiting lists for apartments.
"I don't think we were prepared for the resistance," says Watzke, dean of research at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto.
"We misunderstood how difficult it would be to just move them - move them not out of the house but just move their mindset."
He says a resource such as a new web guide, released Monday, to assist baby boomers with these difficult conversations might have made a difference.
The kit, available at www.bcit.ca/mobility, was put together by Christine Flegal, a gerontologist in the Living Laboratory at the B.C. Institute of Technology. The site also has links to a Facebook group on the topic and is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ToughConvos.
As adult children living in other cities head home for the holidays, it's an ideal opportunity to see how aging parents are doing, and observe whether they're having more difficulty getting around and remaining steady on their feet.
And, says Flegal, it's a time to initiate discussions about what's going on, with persistence and compassion.
"It's not an easy conversation. The kids don't want to have it. The parents certainly don't want to have it. So there's this big denial bubble over everybody. So the kids have to be persistent and ongoing with the discussion, regardless of how frustrating, sad, uncomfortable it is."
An Ipsos Reid telephone poll commissioned by the institute found 79 per cent of boomers surveyed said their parents' physical health was an important concern. Six out of 10 were concerned about how their parents will get around on their own or who will care for them.
The survey involved 1,150 Canadians between 45 and 60 living outside of Quebec who have parents over 70 who've experienced health or mobility difficulties.
Flegal acknowledges that not every family has great communication skills, but notes that brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, clergy or the family doctor can be brought into the discussion.
"Seniors tend to be really open with other seniors, their peers," she says.
"So, in terms of using a cane or a walker, having some young person say 'you need to use' resonates a little differently than someone who is in their age bracket, who is experiencing the same issues, and saying 'you know what? I just went and got this cane and it's the best thing I ever did.' "
The issue might not even be on the older person's radar, so it's important to know their mindset beforehand, and introduce the topic by saying something like "Hey, mom, I noticed that you're holding onto the furniture more than you used to."
The statistics for those who do fall are grim. Upwards of 10 to 15 per cent will die in the first year after fracturing a hip and 40 per cent of nursing home admissions are because of a fall, Flegal says.
"They know about the falls but I think it's all in one ear and out the other. It's like, 'Oh, it's not going to happen to me.' "
Steps that can be taken include removing throw rugs that are trip hazards, adding lighting because vision may be impaired, and increasing the volume of telephone and doorbell ringers, because hearing might be deteriorating.
A physiotherapist or occupational therapist is the best health professional to assess someone for a cane or walker, Flegal advises.
She and Watzke were interviewed at the York West Active Living Centre in Toronto while seniors played cards, shuffleboard and took a dance class nearby, as board member Irene Verner, 67, listened intently.
"The seniors at this wonderful place here, these aren't the group (that needs help). These guys are out, they're connected, they've got their tap shoes on, engaged. That's not what my parents were like," Watzke said.
Verner noted that many parents "put their whole lives into their kids."
Her perspective: "I think if someone said to me 'I'm worried, we're worried, could you do it for us?' - like, in the proper words, I think that might resonate. 'Oh, my children, I'm going to do it for my children.' "
Verner once suggested a walker for her sister, who resisted, but after she had a week to think about it, she took to the idea.
"I think seniors have really got to help other seniors," she said.
"I have a friend who once said to me, 'do it while you still can,' who moved into a condo. That resonated with me, I thought yeah, plan a little bit earlier."
Flegal reinforced the notion.
"What often happens is something will happen, and then everyone is in a crisis management situation, and then bad decisions are made, things aren't able to be looked at from all angles, they end up having to take the one option that's there, they don't have choices."
Watzke said that even when his parents were accepted into assisted housing, his dad turned down the spot. If he could turn back the clock, he said he would leverage his parents' friendships with a couple of neighbours to help with the cause.
"So the story doesn't end well. My mom was smoking in bed and she caught the house on fire."
It happened about three years ago and his parents died.
Suzanne Teixeira, manager of programs and services at the Active Living Centre, said various agencies are available to help people age at home, in a safe environment.
And Flegal noted that centres like York West can be a great support to baby boomers in a dilemma.
"They can point them in the right direction. They can say 'have you tried this, this or this?' So they should absolutely tap into their local seniors centres."
Funding for the BCIT Mobility project was provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada, BCIT, in collaboration with Weber Shandwick Worldwide.