As I began to glance at Pamela Wilson’s Sep 22, 2021 Podcast: Hard Truths About Caring for Aging Parents – The Caring Generation® the hard truths started jumping out at me right and left. I had learned about many of those hard truths the hard way—by first-hand experience
Hard Truths About Caring for Aging Parents – The Caring Generation® (pameladwilson.com)
In this blog post, I will identify some of those hard truths and then share how they impacted my own caregiving experience and how I anticipate they will impact me and my family in the future.
- Decide how much interaction you want with your parents throughout your life. The decision to remain living in the same town as your parents or move away affects caregiving responsibilities later in life.
This decision is not always yours to make. Both my mother and my husband’s parents chose to move away from us when they retired to Florida. My mother and my father-in-law both died suddenly; there caregiving needs were never very great. My mother-in-law, however, had a goal of living to 100 and did her best to accomplish that goal, despite having a number of serious health conditions. When she became unsafe living on her own, she moved closer to us. My son and two daughters were all married with families, but they always found time to be supportive of their grandmother. When her caregiving needs became much greater, she moved into our home with me as her primary caregiver. My children continued to be supportive. (My mother-in-law died just short of 90.).
Although my husband chose not to move away from our children, our older daughter and her spouse decided to relocate from our hometown when their kids were old enough that they no longer needed as much family support. Since then, she made it clear she does not intend to be a caregiver. Her younger sister thanked me for being such a good example when I cared for her grandmother. I certainly encourage the children to be supportive of each other when the time comes that we may need some help.
- Be aware that life cycle transitions affect the timing and care of aging parents. Few children expect to spend their retirement years caring for aging parents. Still, many retired adults become caregivers—if not for a spouse, then first for aging parents. Caregiving responsibilities often pass from one generation to the next. Although some families may believe in the responsibility to care for aging parents—is there another way to make sure parents receive care and you are not the only caregiver? There isn’t one right or wrong way, but one solution is for families to think about caregiving differently, from a whole-family perspective that take lifecycles into account: having and raising children, caring for aging parents, caring for a spouse, and caring for the caregiver.
- Family culture has a strong impact on how families handle the issue of caregiving. Is the family individualistic, believing in self-sufficiency or collectivist, setting aside individual achievement to work toward the good of all in the family? Does the family talk openly about the unpleasant realities of life and death? Some elderly parents may refuse to talk about legal planning or burial plans, whereas some adult children find talking about the death of a parent too emotionally traumatic. A family generally benefits if they can discuss sensitive topics openly as a recurring topic instead of a subject of hesitation and disagreement.
This was one of the biggest challenges when I was my mother-in-law’s caregiver. As one sister stated, “We never talked about anything. We just moved on.” When we came to the point that I was coming to a point of resentment because of their comfort with my assuming the role, which diminished their need for sacrifice, I forced the issue by insisting on a family meeting and requesting greater shared responsibility. Although that eventually led to more involvement, it also led to hard feelings that still exist ten years after my mother-in-law passed away. Setting boundary lines increased their participation and helped rid me of resentment, but I also think that it increased theirs—but there are times that difficult decisions must be made in order to avoid even greater consequences.
- Caregiving and care costs affect family income. It’s important to have conversations about the cost of caregiving ahead of time. Potential caregivers need to consider how it will impact their educations and careers. If you don’t talk about caregiving ahead of time, you will find yourself learning after you are embroiled in the role. Often families move in together to provide care for an aging parent with the thought of saving money. Too frequently, however, when a son or daughter gives up their job to be a caregiver, they become financially strapped. Sometimes caregiving appears to be an opportunity to escape from a job or a boss you hate.
Because I quit my job when my mother-in-law moved into our home, she paid the mortgage (equitable to the cost of her apartment in the independent senior living facility where she had been living) because that is what my salary had covered previously. She also named my husband as her life insurance beneficiary to compensate for the loss of social security and pension monies from my early retirement. Although my husband’s siblings had agreed to the arrangement ahead of time, it did not seem to settle well with them when the estate was settled.
- Caregivers often give up or trading parts of their lives to care for aging parents. Should you? For how long? The cost is great when you were the only person to step up.
Today, as I age and my health declines, I often feel that I squandered the last best years of my life as my mother-in-law’s caregiver. At those points my counterpart sister-in-law’s comment comes to mind: “My priority is my children. I am only a daughter-in-law.” What to Do about Mama? p. 20
- A lack of planning affects family relationships. When there is no planning because the topic of caring for aging parents is something no one wants to talk about, unpleasant and unwanted decisions are not avoided. Caregiving becomes a process of action and reaction that elicit a response only when serious concerns are manifested, or a crisis moment occurs. Ripple effects are then created that affect every generation in the family.
A few years ago, both my daughter-in-law and my son-in-law’ mothers were diagnosed with cancer. The first family spoke openly of the diagnosis. She opted not to undergo treatment and after five months, passed away.
“There was all this anticipation of need when the diagnosis came, but that need did not actually manifest itself much until the last few weeks of my mother’s life. She was fortunate to live comfortably until then, and was indeed in decent enough shape, that she was still making coffee for my dad every morning, up until those last few weeks. Our help for her was largely emotional support and keeping true to her wishes of spending as much time with family as she could. My mother waited until she’d checked the last items off her “To Do” list—a granddaughter’s birthday, a dance recital, and Dad’s hemorrhoid surgery—and then she stopped eating. She passed away on Father’s Day, surrounded by her husband and children who loved her so.” What to Do about Mama? P. 280
When I offered my son-in-law a copy of “The Conversation Project” which encourages dialogue between parents and children, he was angry with me, calling me “insensitive”. His mother opted for treatment, but sadly, the result was the same. Without going into the details, I think it would be accurate to say that her experience was in many ways, quite different that the one described above.
- It’s never too early to make a plan. Consider how caring for a parent will affect you, your marriage, your family, and your career. There are times when you must make difficult decisions in order to avoid even greater negative consequences.
I found from personal experience that Caregiving isn’t a short-term project. It can go on for a year, three, five, ten, twenty, or more. If you are proactive about making choices for on-going care you may avoid the caregiver burnout and frustration—the sources of emotional stress that can cause one’s health to decline. I know it did for me.
Cynthia Hickman gets right to the point in her August 16, 2021, blog post of “Your Proactive Caregiver Advocate: Dr. Cynthia Speaks!” and it’s a valuable point, to be sure.
Take the Blinders Off-Your Parents Are Aging!
Cynthia Hickman’s life-events regarding the death of her parents are similar to mine. Her father died in 1965 at the age of 46, whereas her mother did not pass away until 2017 when she reached a more advanced age. My father died in 1963 at the age of 48—and the circumstances of his death were a major formative factor in my life. My mother died in 1998 at the age of 77, which—although a more “acceptable” age—is one that heightens my own awareness of mortality, since I am now 72.
Cynthia Hickman talks about the circle of life and points out that the process of our bodies breaking down is nothing more than a natural part of life’s cycle. She goes on to ask the question:
Should We Prepare or Should We Wait?
It is her position that “we must remove the blinders and deal with the reality of our family circle.” She recommends that we acknowledge the actions and patterns of those we love; that we are proactive and self-aware of our roles, and that we embrace readiness rather than run from it.
I have had some major life experiences that form my perspective—and I must report that, like Cynthia, I have a strong belief in “prepare”. Although you can never be in “control” of everything that happens in life, by adopting Cynthia’s mode of thinking you will find yourself in a better position to step into caregiving with less stress and more confidence in your ability to handle life-challenges.
When you avoid confronting difficult topics—often to the point of denial—they only become more challenging because you are ill-prepared. Furthermore, you will create a greater burden for your own children when the time comes that you are in need of care.
Following is a list of my own past blog posts that deal the topic of being prepared.
- Attitudes about Caregiving Education
- The “We don’t need it yet” phenomenon
- Thoughts about Denial
- More about Denial
- Becoming a Caregiver and Planning for the Future
- Burdening Our Kids–Revisited
- Lickity Splickity or Little by Little?
- It Pays to Prepare
- Processing the Pictures
- The Conversation Project