Aging Parents - What They Don’t Tell You
The luckiest of us have parents who age gracefully.
They take to retirement in their later years, playing golf or lunching with their friends. They may babysit your kids while you’re at work, or finally put that nest egg to good use and travel the world.
Yet, in other cases, some parents don’t have that luxury. Maybe their bodies start to betray them—their balance not quite what it was, the climbing of stairs becoming a challenge—even as they mentally stay sharp as a tack. Sadly, others lose their mental acuity alongside their physical decline, making the simple task of short-term memory something they can no longer grasp.
As middle-aged children starting to feel our own aches and pains creep into our day-to-day, we’re stuck trying to figure out how to help mom and/or dad. It’s causes us to ask "what do I do?” if there is no long-term health care plan in place already.
Plus, there’s nothing more stressful than watching your parent, who once was full of life and vitality, wither away before your eyes, reverting back to toddler-like beings—depending on others to help them get through the day. It’s time-consuming even if you share the duties with family members, and worse if you have no one else to help. Not to mention the guilt when you try to take time for yourself.
There doesn’t seem to be a handbook on managing elderly parents. Not a course in school, nor is it a topic people regularly discuss. But maybe it’s time we do.
Studies show the stress of caring for a parent with health issues can cause anxiety and depression. It can even lead to having your own health issues. But, who has time to take care of themselves when they are too busy taking care of others?
When my mom passed away from breast cancer in her 50’s, my dad attempted to rebuild his life. Just a few short years into his journey, and just weeks before he turned 65, he had a stroke. It pulled him out of his world and sent him immediately into retirement. He lost his ability to drive—although he tried it the one darn weekend I went away with my husband and we ended up taking his keys away. He’d never go back to work, which was the hardest part to accept since he was such a people-person, a customer service guru who loved to take care of their needs. And he’d lose some significant feeling in his left arm and leg, but still have unbelievable strength.
Although he was able to go back to living on his own, there’s been a slow yet steady decline to his health over the past fifteen years. The biggest bumps in the road involved a second stroke, pneumonia, a blood clot in his lung, open heart surgery and a knee replacement.
Major surgeries can cause wear and tear on your brain—something we recently learned. So even though my dad was slightly forgetful before open heart surgery, he has almost completely lost his short term memory due to the anesthesia from his knee replacement last year. And he’s had a few moments of complete amnesia.
Through all this, I admit, I’ve had a few “moments” of complete and utter helplessness. And perhaps a selfish thought that was “well, I guess I’ll have to schedule my midlife crisis another time.”
What I can tell you is, caregivers, you are not alone. There are many resources out there. Luckily, the interwebs now offer us communities in which to learn and vent. For example:
AgingCare’s 14 Strategies for Controlling Caregiver Stress
Get Respite: Use respite and outside care resources available to you without guilt. Taking a break while ensuring your loved one is well cared for is one of the best ways to reduce stress.
Seek Advice: Financing care is one of the most stressful aspects of caring for a loved one. If caring for parents, you should not be using your own funds for care. If you need financial help, seek the advice of an elder law attorney. If your parents have the financial ability, it is possible for you to be paid as a family caregiver. Although there are fees for the services of an elder law attorney, they can help define a plan for paying for future care and can assist with the complex process of completing applications for Medicaid or VA benefits. Alleviating the stress of these processes may be well worth the fees.
Set Boundaries: Say "no" to requests that are draining and stressful, such as hosting holiday meals.
Accept Limitations: Forgive yourself for your imperfections. There is no such thing as a "perfect" caregiver.
Let Go: Identify what you can and cannot change. You may not be able to change someone else's behavior, but you can change the way that you react to it. Don't dwell on the things you cannot change, focus on moving forward.
Set Realistic Goals: Break large tasks into smaller steps that you can do one at a time.
Get Organized: Prioritize, make lists, and establish a daily routine.
Communicate: Keep in touch with family and friends to ask for help. Making time for yourself will require that you both ask for and accept the help of family, friends, and outside resources.
Seek Support: Join a support group for caregivers. If time is limited use an online support resource like the AgingCare Caregiver Forum. If your loved one has a particular affliction, such as Alzheimer's or dementia, look for a support group provided for caregivers coping with that disease.
Stay Active: Make time to be physically active on most days, even if it's a short walk. Eating a healthy well-balanced diet and increasing activity levels may improve your ability to get better sleep.
Attend to your own Health: See your doctor regularly for checkups.
Laugh: Keep your sense of humor and practice positive thinking. Watch mindless TV, read gossip magazines, or surf the internet. Any "escape" from reality that offers an opportunity to relax is a way to reduce pressure.
Utilize Community Resources: Find out about caregiving resources in your community. Your Area Agency on Aging is a great, free resource that can recommend community services and support groups near you.
Consider Time Off: If you work outside the home, consider taking a break from your job. Employees covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for relatives. However, most experienced caregivers would caution against this as a permanent idea. Making care decisions that provide proper and safe care for a loved one while you are gainfully employed is a better way to protect your future than leaving your job entirely. Your retirement benefits and ability to provide for yourself should remain your first priority.
The best piece of advice that I can give you is DO #12. Do it a lot.
Laughter has gotten me through the most stressful of times in the last decade or so. We laughed our way through Dad’s emergent open heart surgery in the waiting room with family and games (did you know you can smuggle in booze?). We laughed so hard during his knee replacement, we had tears in our eyes when the doctor came to give us a status report (the doc probably thought we were a bunch of goofballs). We laugh at the ups and downs, the falls and hospital-visits (“here we are again”, “when will they name that wing after us”).
But don’t try and do this alone. Even if it’s just to vent to a friend, take a quick break with a spouse, or have a cocktail with a coworker. Make time for yourself. Find your sanity, because believe me, it’s easy to lose.