What happens when you become “parent” to your parent?

May 11, 2012

Caregiver engaging with her patient

Today, more Americans are living beyond their 70s than ever before. This means that more adult children are caring for their aging parents. This situation can cause a lot of stress, questions, and conflict in children.

Usually, only one adult child takes care of an aging parent. Many times, it is a daughter. Dr. Lisa Hollis-Sawyer is coordinator of the Gerontology Program at Northeastern Illinois University. She says, "It's fairly universal that we think of women as a caregiver. So their role in helping an elderly parent is not uncommon."

The oldest child is also frequently the person providing care for a parent. But there is more to who is going to care for a parent than gender and age. Instead, brothers and sisters should consider who the best fit is. Dr. Hollis-Sawyer offers some advice. The child who provides care should be chosen for a range of reasons. You should consider personalities, who lives the closest, and who can afford to provide care. These all play a role in picking who can provide the best care.

Taking charge of an aging parent

Dealing with the care of an aging parent can be a challenge. It can be especially difficult if your brothers and sisters are not willing help out. How do you get help from your family so your parent gets the best care? WebMD.com offers the following tips:

Open the lines of communication. Talk about how your family will care for each parent should it be necessary. Talk about it before the situation turns into a crisis. Sit down with everyone together, decide who will do what and how the responsibilities will be shared.

Pick an age to talk. Have the conversation when your parent is still independent. This could be when your parents are in their late 60s or early 70s. They should still be in good mental and physical health.

Support comes in many shapes. Many times, one child is chosen to be the primary caregiver for a parent. But everything doesn't have to fall to that one person. Siblings can pitch in with paperwork, finance management, or housekeeping help.

Dr. Steven Stern is a professor of economics at the University of Virginia. He says families need to support the sibling in charge of a parent. They can offer money to their brother or sister. This could help in pay for the care of a parent. Talk to a financial planner if you are caring for an aging parent. You may be able to take a parent as a dependent on your tax return.

What to do when help is not offered. Sometimes, one child is left in charge with no support from his or her siblings. "This situation happens a lot," Hollis-Sawyer says. She suggests that caregivers talk about their needs to others.

Asking siblings or other family members for support is a good idea. It is better than trying to take on the situation entirely on your own. If no one still offers to help, look for other options.

Hollis-Sawyer suggests that you turn to your community for support. There are caregiver support programs. And there are estate-planning consultants who understand the financial issues.

It's not all about you. Pay attention to your parent and his or her needs. Remember that there are two people in this situation – not just one. "There is a lot of stress to being in someone's care," says Hollis-Sawyer. Parents have to learn how to accept care. They also have to learn how to depend on someone else.

Other caregiving options

Here are just a few ideas to help you find ways to share your caregiving responsibilities:

Ask family and friends. Start with the obvious. Ask other family members to help out and ease your load a bit. Figure out what you need, and be direct. See if your brother can start handling your mom's doctor's visits. Or ask your teenage daughter to take your mom out for a movie. That way, you can get some time off. Some people may be more willing to help than you expect.

Call senior centers and adult day care. Senior centers typically offer meals, recreation, exercise, and sometimes transportation at no charge. They are also a great place for you to meet other caregivers. Adult day care programs offer similar services. But they help people who need more care.

Hire help at home. Personal and in-home care services can help with daily activities. The caregivers' services include helping with dressing and preparing meals. Maybe your parent would like someone to talk to during the day. If so, a volunteer organization or church might help. If your parent needs more serious medical care, consider home healthcare. Keep in mind that Medicare might cover some costs of home healthcare. This is especially true if your parent is recovering from an injury or surgery. For people with limited finances, Medicaid may pay some of the costs, too.

Take advantage of meal programs. Many areas have local groups that provide free or low-cost meals. Some grocery stores offer prepared meals that can be delivered.

You may already know some great caregiving resources, too. Start talking to your doctors, nurses, relatives, friends, and neighbors. They could help with information about local services and facilities.

Be flexible

The demands of home care can be very different. Some parents may need feeding devices and IVs to help with their daily lives. Some may need help with cleaning the house, cooking meals, and assisting with pain management.

A National Family Caregivers Association survey estimates that nearly 54 million Americans are caregivers. That number is twice as many as previously had been thought. The survey also found that men are providing more care to family members.

"Caregiving has changed dramatically," says Dr. Fran Barg, from the University of Pennsylvania. She said patients are discharged quicker, and the patient is sicker at home with more complex needs. The patient's family likely has a lot of things to do. They might be raising kids and working full time. Plus, adult children tend to live farther away from their parents today.

Barg says families must make many adjustments. There are role changes when a parent becomes a patient. There's the possible economic impact if work is affected. Caregivers also may question whether they have found the right kinds of help. Or they wonder if they have chosen the right course of treatment. These questions can lead to a lot of stress for some people.

Don't forget to take care of yourself

Sometimes, caregivers can wear themselves out, making it hard to take care of the patient. They start believing that only they can take care of their parents. As a caregiver, you should know that your needs are important to the parent. They want you to be happy and healthy.

Caregivers should be told to network and not be afraid to ask for help.

"Caregivers often have physical problems of their own," says Barg. "We know that elderly caregivers are much more at risk," she says. Some people may find themselves more ill after several months of caregiving. They may neglect their own healthcare, nutrition, and exercise.

Some families may not feel comfortable to allow home care. Lack of money may also prevent families from accessing home care services. Most private insurance plans will cover limited home care services for short periods. Many government-sponsored programs cover home care for those who meet certain eligibility criteria.

The benefits of caregiving for an aging parent

The responsibilities of caring for an aging parent might overshadow the benefits at times. But it is important to remember the rewards of the situation, as well.

There are definitely benefits of a positive caregiving relationship, says Hollis-Sawyer. Sons or daughters who are caregiving can become closer to the parent. Many people, she says, find that caring for an aging parent is a growth experience. It creates an opportunity for both people to learn more about themselves and each other.

For the parent, spending time with a child can improve their quality of life. When children provide help for their parent, it has a positive effect. Parents have a stronger emotional connection to their child. That strong bond may not necessarily make parents healthier, but it might make them happier.

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