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What to Do When Dad and Mom Have Different Senior Care Needs

11 minute readLast updated February 1, 2024
fact checkedon February 1, 2024
Written by Chacour Koop
Reviewed by Carol Bradley Bursack, NCCDP-certified dementia support group facilitatorAuthor Carol Bradley Bursack spent two decades as a primary caregiver to seven elders and is also a newspaper columnist, blogger, and expert on aging.
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Dad may be able to live independently, but Mom may need assisted living or memory care. Living separately can put a strain on your parents’ relationship and on their connections with other loved ones. What can you do to make the arrangement work? As a family member, you can support them by finding a long-term care setting where both parents can live together. If that’s not possible, you can take steps to help them feel connected even if they live in different places.

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Making decisions about your parents’ different senior living care needs

It’s not unusual for parents to develop different care needs as they age, even if some of their abilities are similar. For instance, your mom might have a dementia diagnosis, while your dad only needs help managing his medications. Perhaps one of them needs help with mobility, and the other is having trouble meeting their needs. These differences can create a challenging situation for both the parent who needs more care and the parent who is in the caregiver role.

You can create a plan to help ensure both of your parents are getting appropriate support if they have different care needs. Home care, independent living, assisted living, and continuing care retirement communities all offer opportunities for your mom and dad to age together. Meanwhile, memory care can provide much-needed support if one or both of your parents is experiencing dementia.

“Financial resources, personal preferences, and senior living community availability all play a role in determining the optimal living arrangements for your parents,” says Sharon Daily, LCSW-C, a social worker at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health.

Here’s a look at how various senior care options could support your parents, depending on their situation.

In-home care

home care agency can provide individualized assistance that helps your parents with different tasks. The goal is to help them age in place together and avoid moving into a senior living community. Typically, home care aides can support seniors with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing or using the bathroom, as well as with chores around the house.

Although one parent may already provide this type of care to the other, it could become unsafe as needs increase. The more independent parent is also at risk for isolation and caregiver stress. In-home care can enable the caregiving parent to get out of the house and keep social connections.

If one parent has specific medical needs, home health care providers can provide more advanced services. This type of in-home care is given by medical professionals instead of home care aides. For instance, a home health care provider could help a parent who’s recovering from surgery with services such as physical therapy, medication administration, or wound dressing.

Independent living

Independent living is a senior living setting for couples who no longer want to handle the responsibilities of maintaining a home and prefer a more social environment. It doesn’t typically include help with ADLs, but some independent living communities offer third-party home care providers on-site. This service could enable your parent who needs more help to continue living with their spouse in an independent living community.

“On-site homecare can be very flexible and helpful to alleviate the stress of the primary caregiver,” says Christy Neal, a senior living advisor at A Place for Mom. “Staff and neighbors are usually aware that the couple has slightly different needs, and [they] lend a watchful eye and helpful hand when needed.”

However, if the independent living community doesn’t offer easy access to a home care provider or it isn’t feasible to pay for this added service, your family may want to consider other options.

Assisted living

Assisted living communities often have different levels of care to meet the individual needs of each resident, including the unique needs of spouses who live there together. If your parents both need help with activities of daily living (ADLs), this environment could be ideal for them, even if their needs aren’t identical.

Additionally, some communities provide tailored short-term nursing services for residents with more advanced needs. Bringing in extra help could enable your parents to stay together, even if one develops a new condition or diagnosis.

Neal adds that moving both parents into assisted living, even if one of them is still independent or has the beginnings of memory loss, is still an option.

“Communities do a great job of having sensitive, trained personnel who respect boundaries but also get the job done. Couples can gain support from other couples who are in a similar situation,” she says.

Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs)

Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) incorporate independent living, assisted living, and nursing home care on a single campus. This enables seniors to age in place without moving to a different community.

Even if spouses aren’t able to live in the same building because of their different care needs, they’ll still live close enough to interact regularly. They may need assistance visiting each other if one spouse has mobility challenges.

Memory care

memory care community is a specialized long-term care setting for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. They’re often located within an assisted living community or nursing home.

If one of your parents has been diagnosed with dementia, it may not be suitable for their spouse to live with them in a memory care environment. However, the spouse who doesn’t have dementia may be able to live in an adjacent assisted living community or nursing home. Neal mentions that it’s fairly common for senior couples in these situations to move into the same community but live in different buildings.

“Each spouse can have all their physical and cognitive needs met in a safe setting, amongst their own peers, and still be together as often as they’d like,” Neal says. “This also gives the spouse who has played the role of primary caregiver a well-deserved break and a chance to focus on their own well-being.”

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Our free tool provides options, advice, and next steps based on your unique situation.

Ways to handle a senior living care separation

As much as your parents might like to continue living together, it may not be feasible if they have significantly different care needs. Additionally, transitioning both of your parents to a senior living community could be cost-prohibitive if one of them can still safely live at home.

Living together has the obvious benefit of continued companionship, which can improve mental health, and it’s likely your parents’ preference. However, there may be a downside to this arrangement if one of your parents isn’t getting the support they need. It could also put extra strain on the spouse who provides caregiver duties.

Daily believes there’s no universal right or wrong answer when the needs of a couple are varied. The best choice for your family may be different from what’s right for another.

“As caregiving becomes more difficult in the home, alternative living arrangements are sometimes necessary for the safety of the couple,” Daily says.

If it becomes clear that a separate senior living care situation is needed, consider the following tips to keep everyone connected.

Arrange transportation

If Dad no longer drives, visiting Mom in senior living can be tricky — and you could get burned out if you’re the sole chauffeur. Instead, Daily recommends using an Eldercare Locator to find your local Area Agency on Aging and access senior transportation services. If reliable senior transportation isn’t an option, perhaps you could work out a schedule with family members.

Create a schedule

Since you can’t be in two places at once, make a schedule so each parent has family or friends visiting on different days. Not only will this lighten your load, but it will also relieve some of the burdens from the more independent parent who might still live at home. This way, Dad can rest easier knowing that Mom is spending time with people who love her, Daily says.

Encourage self-care

Take time to look at the bright side of the situation: After months or even years of caregiving, living apart can provide a much-needed break for the healthier parent.

“The caregiver now has an opportunity for respite and the ability to care for himself as he is also aging,” Daily says.

Manage guilt

Rather than blaming yourself or others for your parents’ senior living separation, Daily suggests focusing on the fact that you and your family are doing the best you can in a complicated situation.

“Be gentle and kind to yourself and your family members when managing the stressors of having parents in two different care environments,” Daily says.

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Finding care to meet the different needs of parents

If your parents have different care needs, you can help them by finding support from various long-term care options.

“We cannot always change the circumstances as our parents age, but we can be helpful with shared decision-making, providing support, and spending time,” Daily says.

A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors can help families find options to accommodate seniors with different care needs. For instance, if your parents live at home but one spouse needs extra help, a Senior Living Advisor can connect them with home care providers in the area. Or, they can help you find assisted living communities that enable couples to live together.

At no cost to your family, A Place for Mom will tailor a list of referrals, set up tours, and plan the logistics of a move.

Table of Contents

Making decisions about your parents’ different senior living care needs

Ways to handle a senior living care separationFinding care to meet the different needs of parents

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Meet the Author
Chacour Koop

Chacour Koop is a former copywriter at A Place for Mom, where he published articles focused on Medicare, Medicaid, dementia, and wellness with a hope that other families can use the information to improve their lives. As a former family caregiver, Chacour Koop strives to bring practical knowledge about senior care to readers who are navigating this complex topic. Before writing about senior living, he was a journalist with bylines in The Associated Press, Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, and dozens of other publications. He earned a degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.

Edited by

Danny Szlauderbach

Reviewed by

Carol Bradley Bursack, NCCDP-certified dementia support group facilitator

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