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Ask the Expert: Caring for Your Aging Parent

She wrote the book on eldercare, and then her mother got sick

By Heidi Raschke | February 18, 2014

In 1996, Virginia Morris wrote “the bible of eldercare.” How to Care for Aging Parents addressed seemingly every question a member of the sandwich generation could have. The book was clear, compassionate, and encyclopedic, and there was nothing else like it on the market. It became a bestseller. And though Morris had no personal experience as a caregiver, she became a sought-after national expert on the subject.
 
Morris, a medical writer, saw a need for a one-stop resource that addressed all the issues raised when caring for an aging parent. That need is still there, she says, so she’s out with an updated 3rd edition of How to Care for Aging Parents that covers it all — the medical questions, the financial concerns, the housing issues, and perhaps most importantly, the emotional toll that dealing with all those practical matters takes on caregivers and their relationships with parents, spouses, and siblings.

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The update addresses all that has changed since the first edition. The Internet, for starters. “I remember asking my editor if we should include information about the Internet,” Morris says. “She said, ‘People don’t really do that.’” Nowadays, of course, people really do the Internet, using it to research nursing homes, medical costs and on and on.

As technology changed how people access information, things changed for Morris, too. She became a caregiver herself, juggling the demands of career, marriage and a mother with acute lung disease. She discusses this experience — and what surprised her about it — in the new introduction.

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 “Even when you’re not juggling medications or cleaning up vomit, or finding an aide to fill in, you are on call,” she writes. “I had been on call for as long as I could remember, and it was this, perhaps more than all of the daily care, that had worn me out.”
 
Next Avenue recently talked to Morris about the exhaustion, the stress and the joys (yes, there are joys) of caregiving and why people might even need a book in the Internet age. Highlights:
 
Next Avenue: What's your background? How did you find your way to writing the "bible of eldercare?"

Morris: There was this issue. There were no books on it. This was 1991. There was no Internet. You used to call a lot of people and they would mail you brochures. I got into it because there was a need. I didn’t come to it with any baggage. I just did hundreds and hundreds of interviews.
 
Why another edition?

I did think in writing this third edition, ‘Who needs a book anymore?’ But there is so much online and so much of it is not helpful.
 
What are the best technological advances for adult children of aging parents?

My first instinct is to say Skype, or video chat. The problem is many elderly people can’t figure it out. But if you can figure it out, it’s a nice way to be with your parent when you can’t be with your parent. It’s very helpful for you to see them and them to see you.
 
What hasn’t changed?

Most of the basics. That we worry, that we’re unprepared, that we’re dealing with crises, that we’re busy juggling, that we feel guilty — dealing with siblings, dealing with your marriage, juggling all the parts of your life. All of those big things are still there, and technology can’t solve it for us.
 
What’s the question you get asked most?

‘My parent needs to — fill in the blank — and she won’t, and I am so frustrated. What should I do?' It’s an emotional topic, and people are overwhelmed.
 
And what do you say?

A lot of times caregivers feel they have the answers, but caregivers have to listen to what this elderly person wants to do. It’s easy to fall into a role of parent, but you’re not the parent. They are not a child.
 
That sounds pretty simple.

Sometimes it’s as simple as just stopping and listening to what they say. Sometimes it’s just giving them a simple task so they feel needed. Or asking them for advice. Know when to let your parents make decisions for themselves and to accept those decisions, even if they’re not what you want. There’s a conflict of safety versus living fully, and you’re always balancing that.
 
Well, that’s not so simple.

When you’re caring for someone you love who is sick or frail or needs you, it feels like someone’s falling and you can’t catch them. You keep thinking if I run faster, try harder, they’ll live longer. It’s a very hard job. We get so consumed by keeping someone alive that we forget that what they really need are friends and family and love and purpose.

You can forget in all of the medical care and daily care, that this is a person. At the end of the day, what most people need is human contact — a sense of family. What’s important? Racing around and getting all these chores done? Or just sitting down and laughing with them?
 
You write about how you watched a movie with your mom one day instead of clipping her nails and opening the mail.

I talk about doing unexpected things. ‘We’re not going to deal with that health insurance today. I’m just going to lie down on the couch with you and watch a movie. We’re going to do something that’s fun just for us.’ That’s more fun for the caregiver, too. When caregivers can incorporate this, it lightens the burden. You can’t protect your parent from all of this, but you can reminisce with them and laugh with them.
 
What’s your best advice for caregivers?

Plan ahead. Take good care of yourself. Treat your parents with as much respect and dignity as you can. Accept that your best really is good enough.
 
What do you mean by plan ahead?

Having conversations early and planning ahead is really important. You listen to them; they listen to you. And keep these conversations going — always thinking about the next step. How long can she live in this house? What happens when she can’t drive anymore? Does she have legal documents in place? How will she pay for care? And end-of-life care issues. The earlier and the more you can discuss them, the better. That will save a lot of headaches.
 
And what about taking care of yourself?

What people don’t realize is that you will actually do a better job in the long run if you take care of yourself in the short run. It doesn’t make immediate sense, but when people take even a little time to take care of themselves, they are actually more efficient and kinder.

Being in a state of tension and anxiety is not helpful to anyone. If you are in any way taking care of a parent or worrying about a parent, you can become overwhelmed and exhausted very quickly. It jeopardizes everything in your life. Accepting the limits of what you can do is really important. Delegate chores. Find support — someone telling you you’re doing a great job. Find humor in it. I’m considered a leading expert in this field and I didn’t do it perfectly.
 
Why can it be so hard to take even really good advice?

I was terrible at taking my own advice. By the time my mother died, I was physically and emotionally a wreck. I totally understand why people end up completely frazzled and not speaking to their siblings and thinking about divorce and all the things that come with throwing yourself into the caregiver role.

I see families giving and giving and giving and running and running. I mostly see caregivers who are exhausted and overwhelmed and feel guilty. It’s a very hard job. I’m the one saying, ‘You’re doing your best. That’s all that you can do. Take a big breath.’

The third edition of Virginia Morris' best-selling book, How to Care for Aging Parents, will be released February 11, 2014. Visit www.careforagingparents.com to learn more or to purchase a copy.