As parents get older, their ever-increasing number of health concerns often become more serious as well. Whether these issues impact mobility, cognitive function, or something else, there may come a time where the best thing for an older adult is to move into an environment where they can receive ongoing care.
Various professional independent living and assisted living facilities offer excellent options to consider, but many children of aging parents choose to have their parent(s) move into their own home and take on the role of caregiver. And, while this can be a wonderful way to draw closer to beloved family, it can also be a tremendously difficult situation that is physically and emotionally taxing for everyone involved.
If you’re currently living with an elderly parent, you can no doubt relate to why that is. Your situation — and that of your aging parent — is unique and complex, and there’s no way a brief article like this one can provide any caregiving tips specific enough to teach you something you don’t already know about providing the care your parent needs. However, there are some key principles that all caregivers should remember in order to make the most of difficult circumstances a bit easier to handle.
Care for yourself first
Everyone who’s ever flown in an airplane has heard the flight attendants remind passengers that, if the cabin loses pressure and oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, they should put on their own mask before helping anyone else put on theirs. Why is that? Because you can’t help someone else when you’re passed out from lack of oxygen.
Caring for an elderly parent is often mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. Depending on the level of care required, it can lead to sleep deprivation, isolation, depression, and more. In many cases, care falls almost completely on one person even if others live in the home because the caregiving situation has to be fit into an already full and demanding family dynamic.
But, like the airline passenger with the oxygen mask, you can’t help someone else if you’re in bad shape yourself.
So, it’s vital for caregivers to prioritize their own wellness. Harvard Medical School published five simple self-care tips for caregivers:
- Practice self-compassion
- Spend 10 minutes per day breathing mindfully
- Learn yoga, tai chi, meditation, or deep relaxation techniques
- Prioritize proper nutrition and exercise
- Remain socially connected outside your caregiving situation
Additionally, getting enough sleep is vital. And simply getting out of the house to take a walk can do wonders for “resetting” your mind and reinvigorating your body. Of course, this may mean getting help to handle caregiving responsibilities while you’re unavailable. (More on that below.)
Finally, don’t ignore or downplay your own healthcare needs. Caregiving can be both time-consuming and expensive, but ignoring your own health simply makes the entire situation harder, and can even leave your elderly parent without a caregiver. If cost is a serious concern, there are programs and benefits that can help. (More on that below as well.)
Don’t parent your parent
One of the most complex and difficult challenges that arises when an adult child takes on caring for their aging parent is the role reversal and the emotional impact it creates.
Your parent has always had some level of authority over you, even if that’s changed dramatically since you were a child. They were the one caring for and providing for you, and they were probably one of the first ones you ran to when you needed help.
Now, all that is reversed: You are the provider and the caregiver. Out of necessity, that role brings with it a level of authority. If they’re now living under your roof, your rules apply. And, when your parent needs help — whether they want it or not — you are the one they call. This change can be confusing and frustrating, especially for an elderly adult already dealing with the loss of independence and certain indignities that go with that.
So, to help ease this shift of dynamics as much as possible, it’s important that caregiving adult children don’t “become the parent” in the relationship. Your aging parent is not a child. To the greatest extent possible as they face their illness, give them the dignity and respect they deserve by letting them make their own decisions and have a say in their care.
Carol Bradley Bursack spent over 20 years caring for elderly family members. She offers seven tips for preserving an aging parent’s dignity and independence while providing care:
- Encourage hobbies and productive pursuits
- Respect how they would like to be addressed
- Avoid using terms meant for babies
- Facilitate and respect their privacy
- Include them in conversations (especially about their care)
- Offer choices and respect their decisions
- Even in cases of dementia, accept their reality and don’t argue unnecessarily
Get help before you need it
As noted above, caregiving will cause strain on everyone involved. It’s inevitable. The key to success is twofold:
- Accept the fact that no one person can handle everything required of a caregiver, and…
- Line up help early on before burnout strikes
If you’re married and/or have children in your home, have a frank discussion about what is going to be needed when your parent moves in, and work toward getting buy-in from everyone. Whether they will be directly responsible for caregiving tasks or not, everyone’s schedule and workload will need to adjust or someone will be overworked.
If you have siblings or close family friends living nearby enough to help, have the same discussion with them. Siblings should be willing to take on some of the load, even if circumstances don’t allow them to dedicate as much time to caregiving. You will find that respite care — taking on care for a few hours or days so the main caregiver gets a much needed break — can be worth more than anything else. Financial assistance can also be very helpful.
Don’t overlook the numerous public and private programs available in most communities to provide practical and financial help to caregivers as well. DailyCaring.com offers the following list of suggestions to research when seeking out help and support:
- Adult day programs
- Professional in-home caregivers for respite care
- Volunteer senior companion programs
- Meal delivery and other errand-running services
- Professional house cleaning, lawn care, and other services to lighten your own load
Additionally, DailyCaring identifies over 2,500 federal, state, and private benefits programs set up to provide financial aid for seniors in need of care and caregivers themselves. Taking full advantage of whatever aid is available in your and your parent’s circumstances can open doors to assistance like that listed above, which would otherwise be out of reach due to cost.
Focus on the positive
Finally, although it’s never going to be an easy situation, it’s important for older adults and caregivers alike to work hard on maintaining a positive attitude.
Take the opportunity to laugh anytime it presents itself. Take advantage of moments of good health, peace, and clarity when they appear. Make it a point to enjoy good times with your parent, even if it’s as simple as flipping through an old photo album or listening to them tell a story you’ve already heard before.
In short, make the most of this opportunity to draw closer to your aging parent even as you care for them in their time of need. Despite all the difficulties it may present, being a caregiver truly can be a rewarding and memorable experience.