Who Cares for the Caregiver?
Joan Guest, MSW, LCSW
As the population ages, more and more individuals are taking care of elderly parents. Some adults in their 50s are now “parenting” their parents and some seniors end up taking care of elderly relatives instead of enjoying a carefree retirement. Some husbands and wives with their own medical problems find themselves taking care of a spouse whose issues are more severe. Finally, parents end up “sandwiched” between responsibilities for their children and responsibilities for their parents. When my mother-in-law moved into our home, our children were 9 and 12 and over the next eight years, we faced the increasing pressures of adolescence and extreme age.
Taking care of an older adult can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. Children are able to give back to their parents, grandchildren gain a wider perspective on life, and siblings learn to work together on behalf of their aging parents. At least, that’s what happens when it works well. My children have great memories of playing “Good-night and good-morning” with grandma and watching re-runs of “Diagnosis Murder” for hours on end. I’m glad we have those memories, but taking care of my mother-in-law was stressful and challenging.
What creates the most challenges for caregivers?
- Balance: Caregivers face many competing demands, such as working, marriage, parenting, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Constantly facing demands that can’t all be met produces a high level of stress. Caregivers frequently feel that they aren’t doing well at any of their many roles. Sometimes those roles become impossible, leading to job loss or divorce.
- Self-care: Because of competing demands, care-givers tend to set aside what they can—and often that’s self-care. As a result, they often suffer from high levels of stress-related illnesses such as anxiety and depression. They also tend to neglect preventive care for themselves and ignore symptoms of heart disease and cancer until the conditions may become critical.
- Family relationships: Many caregivers with several siblings say that they feel like only children. When parents become emotionally needy, confused, or critically ill, siblings sometimes respond with anger and competitiveness. When one adult child takes on the role of the primary caregiver, she can feel abandoned, isolated, and criticized by siblings who don’t fully under-stand the pressures.
How can you make sure that your marriage, your children, and yourself are preserved while you take care of a needy loved one? Here are some ways to ensure that you can survive—and even thrive—as the caregiver of an older adult.
- Don’t go it alone. Caregivers have to become experts at networking. The Alzheimer’s Association, churches, adult daycares, and long-term care facilities all offer support groups for caregivers. You may also find help in unlikely places. A friend of mine loved to talk to my mother-in-law, so we’d invite him for meals or pay him to spend an evening with her just to take the pressure off us.
- Face the tough choices. Because of competing demands, you have to make hard decisions. Your elderly parent cannot take all your time and energy. If you’re a parent taking care of parents, your children have to be your focus. If you’re married, your spouse should get more of your attention than your elderly parent. And your own physical and emotional health needs your attention. If priorities are set, you can be a successful caregiver without disappointing anyone too much.
- Find resources. Many local senior centers, churches, townships, and private agencies offer musical.ly hearts for free resources. These may include educational opportunities, medical advice, and subsidized housing, in-home care, and adult daycare. For information, check out www.eldercare.gov,www.alz.org, and www.caregiving.org.
- Finally, care for yourself first. Breathe! When flight attendants describe emergency procedures on airplanes, they tell parents to put their oxygen masks on first, before helping their children. The reason is obvious—you can only help someone else if you have the oxygen you need. In order to be a good caregiver, you have to be physically and mentally healthy. Exercise. Socialize. Pray. Worship. Sleep. Enjoy life. Then you can be the person that your parents, your spouse, your children really need
Learn more about self care for caregivers at Caring For Ourselves Caring For Others