The realization that our parents are getting older and experiencing deteriorating health is often a rude awakening. As kids we thought they would live forever, and as adults we’re used to mum and dad/grandma and grandpa being such an active part of our lives. Now the roles are reversing and suddenly we’re becoming concerned.
As Mom, Dad or other relatives, grow older, our relationship begins to change. Those who we have depended on for so many years, may now start to rely on us physically and perhaps emotionally, too. For many of us, this will be an awkward feeling. As we become spokespeople for their needs and requests, we often need to learn new skills and develop the patience of Job. Many of us will see personality traits that we once admired undermining our efforts. The rules starts to change. The line between decisively moving forward with things and gingerly watching and waiting becomes more and more blurred. How will you cope?
Be alert to ‘the signs’
Here’s an important piece of advice: watch for signs that your parents need more care than they are willing to admit to. A new or worsening condition is an obvious indication but, often, other clues can be more subtle. For example, a house slowly falling into disrepair may indicate that your parents are less mobile, and not physically up to looking after the house. Or, they may be suffering a decline in their mental abilities or their vision and just don’t have the energy or ability to do things themselves. Food spoiling in the fridge may mean that they are not eating proper meals. Lack of attention to personal care is also high on the list.
A particular sign that outside help may be needed is if one parent who provides care for the other (e.g., your mother acting as informal caregiver for your father) begins to complain or show signs of physical or mental exhaustion. You may hear this from the doctor or family friends rather than from your mother or father. Why? Many parents try to tough it out on their own for fear of being separated or making things worse for themselves. To admit defeat or weakness will perhaps make them afraid that you might step in and make sudden changes that they won’t be comfortable with.
Getting to the truth is often hard but experts tell us that, despite the fact that parents often want privacy or think they can shield their kids from worrying about them, families need to speak openly. It’s key to encourage your elders to be clear and honest about their needs. If they want help with finances or errands or doctors’ visits, they should say so. Stating needs openly helps ease your anxiety about how you can help, limits bad feelings and confusion, and assists in managing their expectations of you. Set your limitations and be clear. Are you the primary caregiver or can others be called upon to help? Caregiving can be a collaboration that sees both parties achieving their goals in a win/win situation without resulting in hard feelings and burnout.
Admit it, embrace it
The next step is to get familiar identifying with the term “caregiver.” It’s a term that is becoming increasingly visible in the media and among medical professionals but it’s one that we’re not used to using when it comes to ourselves. As children of an older adult, or elderly spouses, when caring for one another, think of themselves as fulfilling their family responsibilities and not necessarily as caregivers. To call an aspect of their relationship a job or giving it a label may for many, especially older spouses, be seen as a sign of disrespect, asking for help, a signal of helplessness, inadequacy or failure.
If you are caring for an elder, how do you describe what you do? One recent definition that I came across sums it up well: “a caregiver is a person who informally cares for and supports a family member, friend, neighbour or individual who is frail, ill or disabled, and who lives at home or in a care facility.” Is this you?