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When Should You Seek More Family Help?

Primary caregivers may need to call in the cavalry. Here’s what to do.


Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Editor’s note: This is the third in the Next Avenue “When Should You…” series on aging milestones for parents or loved ones. With our partners at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, we will address common caregiving concerns.

If you are like most caregivers, the tasks and responsibilities that come with caring for an aging parent or loved one — running errands, odd jobs around the house, transportation to social events or doctor’s appointments, paying bills, being on call 24/7 — creep up on you as the person’s health and well-being change over time.

It’s important to step back frequently and think about those changes and what they mean. One of the most significant pieces to watch is behavior.

(MORE: When Should You Push for a Geriatric Assessment)

Bonnie Paul, a social worker for the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, has specialized in family counseling and community education for more than 20 years. She describes a typical scenario that should raise a red flag:

“They aren’t just forgetting things. There’s significant cognitive change, and it’s causing them to make bad financial decisions. Or bring people into the house who shouldn’t be there. Or say things that really hurt you emotionally.”

That kind of behavior is a major indicator that it’s probably time for you — the primary caregiver — to involve other family members in the loved one’s care.

Another major indicator is your stress level, as indicated by things like:

  • Changes in your weight
  • Feeling blah, blue, depressed or anxious “all the time”
  • Angry outbursts “for what seems like no reason at all”
  • Forgetfulness “due to juggling too much”
  • Letting your own house and health go “because you just don’t have time for them”
  • Decreased family time or socialization “because you are just too tired”

The important thing to remember, says Paul, is that the need for help with care has nothing to do your caregiving. “Things have progressed to the point where you — physically and emotionally — can’t continue caring for the person by yourself,” she says.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Getting others — especially siblings, who may be scattered all over the U.S. — involved in caregiving should start with a family meeting. And, if possible, it should be a face-to-face meeting.

That’s because, says Paul, “you can get a lot of insight about who might be able to play a supporting role in caregiving by observing people’s body language…and that kind of meeting can usually get everyone on the same page.”

That page — and the opportunities it provides for family members to step in and help — is pretty broad because caregiving isn’t just about ensuring the physical well-being of a loved one, it’s about “the whole reality of care,” Paul says.

(MORE: Has Your Elderly Parent Become Your Midlife Crisis?)

In addition to medical and cognitive/behavioral issues, an effective family meeting should address:

  • How physically safe the home is
  • What the parent or loved one’s socialization and spiritual needs are and how they can be met
  • If, and how much, financial help the parent or loved one may need and who can provide it
  • When and how to find and use community-based resources and services
  • The fact that care needs will change, and likely increase, over time
  • The need for future meetings to reassess and reevaluate the loved one’s care needs

Ultimately, says Paul, a successful meeting results in one or more family members — or friends — “stepping up to the plate and taking on some of the tasks and responsibilities the primary caregiver now has.”

The Benefits of Calling in a Pro

If possible, family meetings should be led by a family counselor or geriatric care manager. “They have the training and experience to know what the issues are, including the sibling rivalry issues, and how and where to find outside help and resources to help solve problems,” says Paul.

Also, she adds, “Having someone else set the agenda and run things allows the person who has been the primary caregiver to be a participant at the meeting, rather than the meeting’s leader.”

Whether a pro is called in or not, if at all possible, include the person being cared for in discussions. If you don’t, you may find, says Paul, “they are unwilling to let others take on some of the roles and responsibilities of caregiving.”

And that can put you — and them — back at square one.

Next month, we look at when to have the tough conversations about curtailing daily activities, like driving, that may be becoming dangerous for your loved one.

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