Taking Loving Care of Your Aging Parents by Windy Forch, GNP

Planning for the Future: Parental Guidance Suggested

In 1900, only one out of four Americans lived beyond the age of 65. Today, the number is three out of four with the fastest growing segment of the population being those over the age of 85. Today's adults in their 40's and 50's represent the first generation who will probably spend more years caring for their aging parents than taking care of their children. And yet many of us are unprepared to guide and assist our parents in their aging journey.

It is often difficult to come to terms with the fact that a parent is aging and may at some point need our assistance. We somehow expect that they will carry on indefinitely in the role they have played in our lifetime. Even when our parents have chronic illness and failing health, we often react to each crisis as it arises but avoid looking further down the road to our parent's future care needs. 

Avoiding discussion about the time when your parent will be frailer and more dependent on you is a natural approach. It can be uncomfortable to broach subjects like finances, healthcare, living arrangements, and legal issues. However, talking with your parents before problems arise can help allay the fears, frustrations and anxieties that often result when care needs change suddenly.

It is never too soon to talk with your parents about their future. Here are some points to keep in mind and help you open the dialogue: 

  • Raise discussion about sensitive issues at a time when you are both calm, rested, and can talk without interruptions.
  • If your parent changes the subject or flatly refuses to discuss it, back off and try again another time.
  • Use statements that are non-judgemental but communicate concern and affection. You might say to your parent, I am worried about you staying alone in your house, rather than You are not able to stay alone in your house anymore.
  • When possible, phrase your concerns as questions so your parent has the opportunity to express their wishes and make their own choices. Rather than I think you should sell your house and move closer to me, try Down the road, where do you see yourself living?
  • Listen carefully to what your parent is saying and try to focus on his concerns, not just your own. You may be worried about your father's living situation but he may be fearful of becoming helpless or a burden to you.
  • Respect your parents' decisions. If you don't agree, don't get into an argument. Instead, ask questions that help them decide if their decision is best, such as, If your plan doesn't work out, what else might you do?
  • Leave the conversation open. Allow your parent time digest what you have brought up and react to your concerns. Tell her you would like to discuss these things again and set up a time to do so.

Helping Yourself Help Your Parent

Caring for an aging parent can bring unexpected rewards to those who undertake it. Family ties are renewed, old conflicts are often resolved, closer relationships develop, and adult children gain satisfaction and pride in giving back to parents who gave to them for so many years. But being involved in the care of an elderly relative can also be a trying and even exhausting endeavor. The emotional issues that surface, the arrangements that need to be made, the juggling act of job and family obligations can be overwhelming. Here are some tips to help you flourish in your caregiving role:

  • Take care of your own physical and emotional health. With time restraints and numerous obligations, you may not consider this a priority but it is. You ultimately will be of little help to your parents if you neglect caring for yourself.
  • Remember, your primary goal should be to help your parents fulfill their needs, not to take over their life. At some point, you may have to make decisions on their behalf and intervene to ensure safety and security. However, your elders should maintain as much control over their life as possible.
  • Do not feel you must be your parent's rescuer. You don't have to feel guilty if you can't make life perfect for him. You can only do what you can do. Your parent needs your empathy and tolerance, not every ounce of your strength and every minute of your time.
  • Enlist the help of others. Neighbors and friends are often more than happy to lend a hand with such things as picking up medication or mowing the lawn. But they won't know you need their help unless youask. Prepare a list of tasks for anyone who may offer assistance. Talk with other family members to find out what they are willing and able to do.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. Your feelings have a lot to do with the way you view and cope with caregiving. All feelings are legitimate, even those that may seem disturbing to you such as anger and resentment. Recognizing and accepting these emotions are the first step towards dealing with them.
  • Explore resources and services in the community. Find out what is available in your area that might assist you with your caregiving such as adult day care centers, home care services, meals-on-wheels, elder transportation, and respite care. A good place to start is to call your Area Agency on Aging or the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116.
  • Let your boss know what you are dealing with. He or she may allow flexible work arrangements, such as working from home, job sharing and part-time employment. If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), ask about elder care benefits. Many EAP's provide counseling, information and referrals to employees caring for older family members.

Caregiver Strain

There are 22.4 million households in the US involved in family caregiving of elders. While the average caregiver devotes about 18 hours per week to caregiving duties, a great many are providing at least 40 hours per week to the care of their loved one. Without help and support, caregivers, particularly those providing full-time, hands-on care can easily become overwhelmed and strained by their responsibilities. Caregiver strain can lead to physical illness, irritability, and depression.

You may be experiencing caregiver strain if you haveā€¦
  • Loss of interest in providing care
  • Problems concentrating or making decisions
  • Persistent low tolerance levels; easily angered or frustrated
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation
Caregiver strain can greatly impact your ability to care for your loved one. Recognize its signs and talk with your health care professional if you are experiencing them.