This is how it often happens: You see your parents a lot since you still live in the same community. So, when your mom falls and breaks her arm, of course, you rush to help. You assist your dad with making some adjustments around the house, and then, for the most part, he takes over. Then, the unthinkable: Your dad has a heart attack. You rush in to help. And then…
I refer to this as the “creep-up factor” because while many situations are far less dramatic than the one above, being an adult child adds the role of caregiver to your list that frequently includes wife/husband, girlfriend/boyfriend, mother/grandmother, career woman/man, and friend.
Note: Let me acknowledge here that many men step into the caregiver role, but since the majority of our current caregivers tend to be women, going forward, we’ll simplify by using a woman as an example.
As you throw yourself into each of your roles, you’ll likely need to start trimming your obligations since even the most determined person has yet to find a way to add hours to a day.
Re-evaluating your priorities
Some of the cuts you make are obvious. If you’ve been volunteering significant time to a fun project, but it’s not one of your life’s priorities, you may need to take a break.
Other relationships aren’t so easily altered, so hurt feelings — and even marriage problems — can arise. First, try to breathe, and next, regroup as you develop a plan that can help you do what’s necessary for each of your roles and relationships — even if it’s not all that you’d like. Doing this will require you to take some steps that may be challenging.
- Your marriage or romantic relationship: If your spouse or partner complains about your lack of attention, acknowledge if you’ve been neglectful. Any spouse should understand emergencies, but when parent care is ongoing, open communication is important.
- Your children: I’ve been there, and it’s hard. One of my sons was in the process of having a long list of illnesses diagnosed, and, of course, I couldn’t neglect my other son, either. Attending our children’s medical appointments and teacher conferences, being present at their school and extracurricular events, and just being there for them emotionally must still be a priority. What that meant for me was that occasionally, the needs of the older adults had to be set aside. As long as they were safe, they, too, sometimes needed to wait their turn.
- Your work: Every single day of my vacation was used to take an elder or a child to a medical appointment or assist during one of their emergencies. Ideal? No, but I couldn’t afford to not work. There are laws in place that can force larger employers to allow family leave, but only an insightful few provide it with pay.
- Your parents: After you’ve personally helped them get to a more stable place, it might be time to research outside help. What would this look like for you? In the scenario above, perhaps in-home helpers could be hired for your mom until her arm is healed. Then, if your dad can go home to recover, they could assist him, as well. Otherwise, assisted living or a nursing home may be necessary for his care. A geriatric care manager or aging life specialist is another option. You can hire one to help you manage your parents’ care or even provide them with direct care. Another useful tool is to go to the Eldercare Locator, a government site that will lead you to your state’s resources on aging. You’ll need to search by using your parents’ zip code.
- Your friends: When we are in emergency mode, maintaining even close friendships can seem like one more thing to do. The result is that caregivers often stop extending and accepting invitations. You will likely find yourself trimming your list of contacts — but don’t cut off your support system in the process. You will need them in your life.
Coming full circle, remember that caregiving can creep up slowly or crash down upon you. Either way, you’ll need to assess what you can realistically do in all areas of your life and try to find a balance. Keep discussions open so that everyone understands that you are there for them, but each will need to accept that they may not get as much of your time as they’d like.
Remember that you don’t owe it to your parents to sacrifice your health and other critical relationships to be with them in person, every single moment. When you think about it, most parents wouldn’t want that for you, either. Finding a balance may seem daunting, but you will all benefit in the long run!
About the author
Carol Bradley Bursack spent more than two decades as the primary caregiver for a combination of seven elders and is the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” She is also a long-time newspaper columnist, blogger, and writer for online websites on the topics of eldercare and caregiver support. She’s been hosting her blog at www.mindingoureldersblogs.com and her website at www.mindingourelders.com since 2006 and has contributed to a number of books on dementia caregiving.