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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am a divorced mother with a 3 1/2-year-old son who visits his father on weekends. My son is taking swimming lessons, but as of now does not know how to swim. Six months ago, his father moved to a house with an unfenced swimming pool. My ex has promised for months to put up a fence; it hasn't happened. I've even offered to pay for it.

Also, my sister takes care of my son once in a while. She lives in a home with a swimming pool that is fenced -- but she keeps the gate open! Her reason is that her two girls, ages 4 and 5, know how to swim.

I worry that my ex or my sister won't properly supervise my son, and he will fall unnoticed into their swimming pools. Have I a right to be concerned or am I overreacting? -- CONCERNED MOM IN CALIFORNIA

DEAR CONCERNED MOM: You describe an accident waiting to happen. Your ex and sister are ignorant about the safety of your child, so it is up to you to see that he is kept out of harm's way.

Do not allow him to visit either of them until you are confident he can swim. Even then, insist that your ex have the pool fenced, and your sister keep the gate closed and locked when your son is visiting -- unless an adult is present at the pool. Until your son is older and more sure of himself, make certain he wears an inflated safety jacket whenever he is around any swimming pool, so he will be able to keep his head above water should he fall in.

DEAR ABBY: I've noticed that some of your readers have been discussing the "value" of our seniors. As an assisted-living administrator, I feel compelled to send this message to the children of our seniors.

You have NOT become your parent's parent. You do NOT have autonomy when it comes to decisions about your parents' lives. What you do have is the obligation to assist your parent in making informed, appropriate choices. This means when your parent needs help with anything from finances to daily care, you gather information and then discuss the choices with your parents. Then, as a family, you arrive at decisions -- but your parents have the final say.

Even people who have memory problems, such as early-stage dementia or Alzheimer's disease, retain some ability to provide input into decisions regarding their care and living arrangements.

If you have a parent's power of attorney, you can make financial decisions. Period. You cannot "sign" them into a nursing home, assisted-living facility or rehabilitation center. You may do that only if you have been appointed their "legal guardian" or have their "health care proxy," and their MD certifies in writing that they are no longer able to participate in making decisions regarding their care.

For those with aging parents, my message is that you AND your parent should start visiting independent and assisted-living homes, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes. Gather as much information as possible. Sit down with Mom or Dad and discuss scenarios that "could" happen -- such as memory loss, hip fracture, etc. Helping your parents make choices in advance will prevent decisions made from panic, instead of logic.

Our biggest fear is of the unknown. Our seniors have earned the right not to worry, "What will happen if I can't take care of myself anymore?" They deserve the right to make that choice for themselves. -- ADVOCATE FOR OUR SENIORS

DEAR ADVOCATE: I agree. Mentally competent seniors have the right to choose where they live, where they get medical treatment and how they spend their money.

They may have slowed down a bit -- and frustrate their adult children -- but they are functional adults who deserve to be respected.

To receive a collection of Abby's most memorable -- and most frequently requested -- poems and essays, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby's "Keepers," P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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