Ambushed by Eldercare? You’re Not Alone
7 strategies to help you cope
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Late one night the phone rings. Your 80-year-old mother has had a heart attack and your life turns upside down, bringing worry, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, your days punctuated by one crisis after another.
More than 54 million Americans are unpaid caregivers to their family members, two-thirds of whom are women (Matthews & Blank, 2013). Pulled in multiple directions at once, many are caring for their own children, as well as older relatives, and their numbers are only increasing as the population ages.
“It is a terrible situation to have so many people to care for and yet also have work responsibilities and other commitments—as well as the need to take care of oneself and remain sane,” says Barbara Trainin Blank, author, with Barbara Matthews, of What to Do about Mama? A Guide to Caring for Aging Family Members (2013, p. 43).
Blank, a professional writer accustomed to multiple deadlines, admits that, “Taking care of my mother may have been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life” (2013, p. 34). Her mother lived 180 miles away, her brother lived much closer, but in many families the weight of caregiving often falls upon one person.
Cascading stress, sleeplessness, grief, guilt, family conflicts, anger, resentment, exhaustion, and burnout—caregiving takes its toll. Psychologist Dale Larson calls this falling into “the helper’s pit” (1993, p. 38). How to stay out of the pit? Larson says to stop blaming yourself if you feel overwhelmed by caregiving and ask instead, “What can I do about this situation?” (1993, p. 55). Drawing insights from their own experience and a wide range of caregivers, Matthews and Blank offer seven powerful strategies:
- Start Planning. If you have older family members, begin asking about their values and wishes for the years ahead. Do they need to scale down, move into a more accessible home, closer to family members, or into a continuing care community? Determine what needs to be done and the support caregivers will need to handle these challenges. If your relative is intent on staying at home, who will pay the bills? Take this person to the doctor? Assist with meals and the activities of daily living?
- Get Community Support. Find out about support services in your relative’s community, such as the local Agency on Aging. Check out senior services and information online such as ElderCarelink (link is external)or SeniorsList (link is external).
- Reach Out. Network with other family members and your loved one’s neighbors and friends. Check out possible support from your relative’s church or synagogue. And consider joining a caregivers’ support group to share information and personal support.
- Take Care of Yourself. Too many caregivers wear themselves out, getting sick themselves. Watch for signs of stress and burnout. Are you:
- Feeling run down and exhausted?
- Having trouble sleeping?
- Easily annoyed?
- Getting sick more often?
- Having trouble concentrating or remembering things?
- Becoming socially isolated?
- Feeling helpless, depressed, or overwhelmed?
Caregiving is a serious responsibility, but don’t become so engulfed in it that you stop being yourself.
- Make time for a regular stress management practice. Barbara Trainin Blank says she dealt with the challenge of caregiving by walking in the mornings with a friend. Regular exercise is good for both body and mind, relieving stress, activating our immune systems, and helping dispel depression (Rethorst & Trivedi, 2013).
- Take regular breaks. Matthews and Blank emphasize the need for regular “respite care,” especially if you are caring for your loved one’s daily needs. If possible, recruit other family members. Check out senior day services and respite referrals at the local senior center.
- Keep up with your own interests. Blank stayed in touch with friends and participated in community groups—relieved to spend time with people who were not dealing with the chronic stress of caregiving. She continued to do some of the things she loves: creative writing projects, watching old movies, and donating to causes she believes in.
As Matthews and Blank (2013) found in their surveys of more than 30 caregivers, the key is to balance your own needs with compassionate care and realistic problem solving. How you handle the challenge of caregiving will make a major difference in many lives, including your own.
Matthews, B. G., & Blank, B. T. (2013). What to do about Mama? A guide to caring for aging family members. Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunbury Press. http://www.amazon.com/What-Do-about-Mama-Members/dp/1620063158/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427846005&sr=1-1&keywords=what+to+do+about+mama (link
Larson, D. G. (1993). The helper’s journey: Working with people facing grief, loss, and life-threatening illness. Champaign, IL: Research Press.http://www.amazon.com/Helpers-Journey-Working-Life-Threatening-Illness/dp/0878223444/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1428530954&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Helper%27s+Journey
Rethorst, C. D., & Trivedi, M. H. (2013). Evidence-based recommendations for the prescription of exercise for major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 19, 204-212.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.
In AgingCare.com, http://www.agingcare.com
Whitney asks the following question:
I would like to hear stories about how your health has been affected by sibling(s) that refuse to help you with parents’ caregiving. Speaking for myself, I’ve had high blood pressure and am fatigued most days. I basically consider myself a calm person, but having to deal with impossible to get along with sibling(s) is really an emotional and physical strain. In addition, do you plan to end the relationship with your sibling(s) at some point that do not help you with caregiving?
Based on my experience as primary caregiver for my mother-in-law, I am absolutely convinced that caregiving has a direct correlation to caregiver health. I believe caregiver health is impacted by both the physical and emotional demands of the job. I address this issue in my book, “What to Do about Mama?”
• Around the time I turned 60, just before Mom became sick, I was sitting on the examining table at the doctor’s office for my yearly checkup, thinking, “I feel great!” In a matter of weeks, because of the dramatic increase of caregiving demands, fatigue, aches, and pains began to get the better of me. WTDAM p.11
• If the expectations we had coming into the caregiving relationship are not fulfilled, the seed for conflict is planted. Our expectations are born out of a sense of fairness. Imbalances of responsibility lead to bad feelings among siblings and to caregiver burnout. “Doing one’s part” is open to interpretation. You are not in control of your adult siblings, and when you try force your will (no matter how justified), it provokes a wide array of negative emotional responses. WTDAM p.60
I also address the issue of maintaining sibling relationships.
• There could be healing someday if you and your siblings find your way to let go of grudges. But you may also have to learn to accept that sometimes relationships are broken beyond repair, and it’s just not your job to fix them. Whereas childhood relationships with brothers and sisters are involuntary, maintaining them in adulthood is not. We are entitled to choose “not.” WTDAM p.113