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Caregivers of Aging Parents

Look Out For The Caregivers When Their Buttons Get Pushed

By Meredith Patterson

Get ready... get set... go! But how? This is the all too common experience of adult children in the throws of their parent's diminished ability to attend to their daily living needs. The parent is in most instances rightfully holding on to as much control as possible, while either recognizing or denying that some assistance would benefit them. How does the child get ready..get set..go?

There are few role models to follow, since aging itself is a relatively new development. It is only very recently that people could be assured of reaching 70 to 90 to 100 years old. The adult children are trying to figure out where they belong in their parent's elder life, when they should be a part of their elder life, and in what way they should be involved.

For some, the constant worries and personal sacrifices are overwhelming, but no matter what story is told, no matter how troubling the details, caring for an aging parent is always about giving. It is about compassion, about family ties that we cannot turn our backs on, about a drive so basic, about closure and saying good-bye. This need to care can feel good for many children. It reminds us of what's really important in life and forces us to look beyond the routines of our daily lives.

Caring for an aging parent is usually trying. It is exhausting, stressful, aggravating, and at times just too much to bear. Your parent's care can easily consume an ever-expanding part of your life. Beyond the day to day pressures and practical questions that arise, there are complex emotional issues to deal with--guilt, resentment and grief, the strains of family relationships, the echoes of one's childhood, and the stark, painful visions of one's own old age.

Before you know it and sometimes without your even realizing it, you are too busy for friends, distant from your spouse, and distracted at work. You need to gain perspective (easier said than done), pace yourself and try not to "fix" everything.

There are, however, unexpected rewards. This is, after all, your parent, and no matter how he might infuriate you at times, no matter how he might have erred in his role as parent, no one will ever love you in quite the same way, and in truth, you will never love anyone else in this way.

A 54 year old daughter, Susan, working full-time, and living in Colorado, flew to Massachusetts on a moment's notice because her 96 year old father's neighbor called to say that he was in terrible shape. The high heat and humidity had taken a toll on him. The daughter arrived to find her father dehydrated and malnourished. Within hours, a physician, a private elder care consultant, fire/police, and a visiting nurse congregated at the gentleman's home to assist.

Susan had very mixed emotions relative to her father. To her benefit, she was able to talk with the care consultant about the inner struggle going on for her as she began to straighten up his home and to prepare meals. "How long will he need me? I'm going to have to get home. I can't go without knowing that someone will keep an eye on him." Within two days, Susan reported that an enormous weight was lifted from her shoulders. The elder care consultant, in conjunction with her client, Mr. C. and his daughter, Susan, had made a plan.

Mr. C., who refused to go to a hospital or care facility, agreed to have a private home care attendant seven days a week to provide care including meal preparation. He also agreed to have the care consultant visit each week in the upcoming month and to be in touch with Susan.

For other daughters and sons who are themselves providing hands-on-care or who are trying to oversee others in this role, the demand is often unrelenting. One daughter stated," I cannot be stretched anymore. I feel like a bubble that will burst! I know that I need help."

"If my mother tells me one more time that I didn't do something right, I'm going to..., boy does she push my buttons!"

Long after you think you have outgrown the parent-child power dance, often after decades of work to resolve it, a casual comment or a subtle look can trigger a surge of feelings. Now that your parent needs you, both the bond and the aggravation are magnified. This is the paradox of parent care.

A helpful reminder from one caregiving daughter to a caregiving son in a different family, "You can't change your father, especially at his age, but you can try to change your reaction to him. It will make you less tense. I promise."

Consider the following:

  • While it's tempting to ignore deep-rooted problems between you and your parent, it may be a good time for the adult child (ren) to explore and address them. It may be your last opportunity to make peace. This takes a lot of determination. But if you can do it, sorting through some of the struggles will help you survive and perhaps even grow during this stressful time.   
  • When you are trying to care from a distance, find someone who can be there. See if a relative, friend or neighbor will stop by occasionally to check on your parent.   
  • Have an emergency response system installed in your parent's home so if she becomes ill suddenly or falls when she is alone, she will be able to get help immediately.   
  • Leave a duplicate of your parent's house key with a trusted neighbor or friend, or hide one somewhere outside of her house or apartment in case there is an emergency and someone needs to get in.   
  • Make sure that you have reliable voice mail so that you can be reached.   
  • Consider retaining a private elder care consultant (geriatric care manager) who will create and implement a care plan for your parent based on the findings of a comprehensive assessment. This professional can remain involved for as long as you and your parent would like to ensure their well being.   

Taking care of yourself requires a healthy mindset. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Take A Break: Everyone needs to "recharge their battery" or "refuel." Do something just for yourself. Have fun. Clear your head.   
  • Friends: Social isolation can become a problem when you are putting so much energy into parent care. Friends are more important than ever. Reach out. Make it a priority.   
  • Shift Gears: Slow down, down, down...even for a few minutes. Breathe.   
  • Love to Laugh: Laughing can help you to remain sane. It also makes the body healthier.   
  • Get Some Perspective: Stay tuned with what's happening with friends, family, and the news. Do whatever it takes to get away!   
  • Take Action: Becoming an informed consumer and educated advocate will benefit your parent and you. Solutions feel good.   
  • Avoid the Coulda Shoulda Wouldas: These thoughts are futile and potentially destructive. Look instead at what is and what can be.   
  • Pursue Other Interests: Clearing your mind of your worries, even for a short amount of time will allow you to regain balance and energy.   
  • Spiritual Support: Whether you are religious or not, spiritual issues often arise. Spiritualism can help strengthen your will and focus your life.   
  • Meditation, Massage: Most caregivers have no idea how much stress they are carrying around until they are in a relaxation class or are experiencing therapeutic massage. Do it!

Remember that while you are giving care to someone else, you must get ready... get set...go by caring for yourself as well. It is the only way that the two of you will be able to hang in for the long run.