There are approximately 46 million Americans aged 65 years plus today and that number is projected to more than double to over 98 million seniors by 2060. There is no escaping aging and/or the fact that we are all getting older. Considering this, the day may well come when you will step in to provide (or help to provide) care for an aging parent/friend/spouse/partner. Regrettably, many potential caregivers completely disregard this point and are caught completely unaware when the time comes. I speak from personal experience as I once thought that both my mother and father were the pictures of good health. Maybe so at one time; however, getting older is a reality and as we age, our physical and mental health can decline.
The road from maintaining good health to requiring complete medical care and placement in a long-term care facility isn’t easy for either a senior or a family caregiver. If remaining cognitively aware, Mom/Dad may realize that they are losing their prized independence and must hand over much of that control to their children. Nobody, young or old, likes to give up something he/she knows and loves – whether it is his/her own car keys or his/her complete decision-making ability. Family members must take on new responsibilities as caregivers, balance their own lives and watch as Mom/Dad mentally and physically weakens (often running themselves ragged in the process). By getting ready, you can make this process easier for all parties involved. Here are a few key steps for you to take:
Prepare Yourself Emotionally. As a caregiver, you will experience a wide range of emotions. When Dad was in his care home, there were days I laughed, cried, felt frustrated and didn’t even know what to feel. Often, there is nothing a caregiver can do but stand by and helplessly watch – without a cure for Alzheimer’s disease (as yet), I could only keep Dad safe and comfortable and advocate on his behalf. While all of these were important jobs to do, I couldn’t help but think I could be doing more for Dad. Whether the process is slow or fast, losing a loved one (or even the thought of losing this special person) can be immensely challenging and rightly so – you won’t get any arguments from me as you are losing someone you love and care for deeply. To better manage, build yourself a strong support circle; these will be the people you know and trust the most. Most importantly, they will be empathetic to your situation. Family and close friends are obvious choices, but try thinking outside of the box. Support groups, offered through senior’s organizations and health associations, can be another option. These will provide a safe environment where caregivers can share and learn from each other. Admitting to yourself, and others, that you need help — from whatever source — at this time is not a sign of personal weakness.
Talk: Aging, getting sick, and facing death can all be unpleasant topics to discuss. In my case, my own parents were never that open with any personal issues, so opening up a conversation took a great deal of courage (and persistence) on the part of me and my two sisters. By talking with each other, you can learn the senior’s hopes and wishes and get on the same page with your own siblings.
Examine Your Own Family’s Medical History. Did a great-grandfather have cancer or did a great-grandmother suffer from heart disease? If the ailment is hereditary, it is likely that another relative may be stricken with the same condition. Before Mom/Dad ends up requiring care, take some time to learn about the diagnosed condition. Search the Internet or read books (be wary of the source of information in both cases – what are the writer’s credentials?) or ask your family doctor what to expect.
Read the Will. Many of the most difficult decisions may have already been made by a senior when he/she was mentally and/or physically sound. While acting on these requests can become intense, you and your siblings can find comfort in that you do not have to decide what might be best for a dependent adult who may not be able to decide what is best for him/her. Having a set route to take greatly reduces the anxiety and potential squabbling between family members who are trying to decide what may be most appropriate.
Remember that, whatever you do and however you approach the job of caregiving, helping and supporting an aging loved one can be a difficult ride. There are many, many emotional buttons (for both you and your other family members) that can be pushed during this time. Thinking ahead and finding ways to deflect these buttons, to the best of your capabilities, will greatly help reduce your own anxiety and help you best prepare for these future challenges.
Rick Lauber is a published book author and established freelance writer. Lauber has written two books, The Successful Caregiver’s Guide and Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians (Self-Counsel Press) as valuable resources for prospective, new and current caregivers. He is also very pleased to have been twice-selected as a contributor in Chicken Soup for the Soul: It’s Christmas! as well as Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Cat. Rick also serves, on a voluntary basis, on the Board of Directors for Caregivers Alberta. To learn more, please visit www.ricklauber.com or follow Rick on Twitter at @cdncaregiver.