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When You Need Help Caring for Mom or Dad

Advice for people having what this writer calls the "caregiving dilemma"


When I was 17, the matriarch of my family, my grandmother, suffered her fifth stroke. Afterward, her mind was still sharp, but physically she was never the same. She needed care 24 hours a day. In the summers and on holidays, we would drive to Kentucky from our home in Florida to spend time with family and help care for Nan.

When I was a senior in college, my mother suffered her third stroke after a surgery and took a turn for the worse cognitively and physically. Six months after my mom’s stroke, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Life spiraled out of control much faster than anyone could have anticipated. I felt overwhelmed, stressed, confused and frustrated. I didn’t know where to turn for help.

I felt I had no other choice but to turn in my roles of daughter, granddaughter, friend and sister and become a caregiver to my mother and father while trying to finish my last semester of college.

A Little Help, and Then a Lot

Family caregivers tend to put their loved ones first, and either discount or deny the impact of caregiving on their own health and well-being and the well-being of other close family members.

I felt overwhelmed, stressed, confused and frustrated. I didn’t know where to turn for help.

The need for care might not start with a medical crisis, but with small things: noticing that your aging loved one needs a bit of help around the house, for example — Mom’s place could use a little dusting, so you stay an extra hour to help out. You’re happy to do it.

Then the next time you visit, you notice she needs a few extra groceries. So you pick some up for her on your next trip to the store and skip your son’s soccer game to drop them off.

You decide to fix a big dinner at Mom’s house once a week. Then you start doing her laundry. Eventually, you find yourself going to her house every day to check on her, and ultimately it escalates to a point where you’re providing care for your mother 20+ hours a week — and neglecting your kids, job and life in the process.

Caught in a Bind

You would never want to tell your mother that you can no longer manage all of her care needs in addition to your family’s and your own. But you have lost the cherished mother/daughter relationship and traded it for a caregiver/care recipient relationship, something neither of you wanted. And both of you are suffering as a result.

This is what I call the “caregiving dilemma.” And you don’t know how you got here.

I personally experienced this while caring for my family members and see and hear the stories of hundreds of others affected by the caregiving dilemma in my line of work as President of the in-home care agency, Home Helpers.

We know that family caregivers spend an average of 24 hours a week providing care to a loved one and nearly a quarter of caregivers provide 41 or more hours of care per week. As the 76 million boomers age, the number of people going through this grows every day and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

We can no longer ignore the impact this is having on American families.

Solving the Dilemma

As we live longer and require more long-term care, we have to find a sustainable solution to this problem. When both the family caregiver and the care recipient are unhappy with the situation, resulting in a strained family dynamic, a change needs to be made.

You might be experiencing this dilemma and not even realize it. These care needs can creep up on the caregiver slowly, adding a few hours of chores here and there. Eventually, those hours can add up to more than 40 per week. This increase can happen so gradually that the caregiver doesn’t realize other parts of her life are being neglected.

Take a moment to think about whether you’re happy with the path you’re on, and whether you can or should continue on it.

Have a Conversation

Many of us have an idea of what will happen when Mom or Dad starts to need more and more help at home, but how many of us have actually talked with them about it? Though the conversation might be a difficult one to initiate, knowing the preferences of your aging relatives makes decisions down the road much easier.

By eliminating the guesswork, you can maintain your relationships and well-being. It’s never too late.

Broaden the Circle of Care

Allowing others to step in and lend a hand can provide a much-needed respite to both the caregiver and the care recipient.

When the family caregiver makes a choice to invite a professional aide into the mix, the caregiver can regain control over the situation. When the care recipient chooses to accept help from an outside resource, a sense of control is reinstated. For both care recipient and caregiver, the opportunity re-emerges to spend time together as a family in restorative ways.

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