“It’s just like caring for a baby,” Yvette had said to my mom, trying to be helpful. She and my mom had just finished their lunch date, and were discussing my dad, who stayed at home that day.
After his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease several years ago, he had become less and less active. His dementia made work difficult, then impossible, and get-togethers with friends became less frequent. Most of all, he became less able to care for himself, forgetting to do basic things like brushing his teeth or drinking water, unless prompted.
My mom’s daily tasks began to resemble the ones she had done for her own kids, and grandkids, when they were babies: Diapering, feeding, bathing, even playing.
But comparing Dad to a cute and cuddly baby not only diminished the difficulty involved in caregiving (although as any mom knows, caring for a baby isn’t easy!), but also added to my mom’s frustration. “I already cared for my babies—five of them!” my mom mumbled under her breath in response. “And I also cared for my grandchildren as well.”
As a senior herself, my mom was way past the “baby-mommy” stage of her life. Surely, she had earned the right to move on to her “golden years,” the time when she was to retire to a beach somewhere with her husband at her side and a colorful fizzy drink in her hand.
She wasn’t the only one who had envisioned these golden years, either. My siblings and I never thought that we’d be caring for our parents, who had always been independent. Sure, we knew they’d grow old someday, but we thought they’d grow old together. Maybe they’d work ‘til they didn’t want to anymore, then travel the world, enjoying retirement from the deck of a cruise ship, popping in to visit us and their grandkids once in port. Then, only then, might they retire to a nice, assisted-living facility.
But as my dad’s Alzheimer’s worsened, my mom needed more and more help—taking care of him, but also taking care of herself. And then my sisters and I found ourselves spending more time back at their home, rather than our own.
Within the next five years, when an estimated one-third of those under 40 will likely become caregivers for older adults.
The fact is, we joined a number of men and women who are finding themselves caring for their parents or an older adult. Today, about 15% of adults between 20 and 44 years of age are caregivers to family members who are 65+ years. These numbers will increase within the next five years, when an estimated one-third of those under 40 will likely become caregivers for older adults.
Statistics show that the number of Americans 65 and older will increase dramatically over the next decade, and that they now number more than 50 million Americans. An estimated 25% of them will celebrate their 90th birthday, and even several birthdays beyond. Sure, many of these adults will be able to continue working and be physically and mentally active throughout their senior years. But others will need someone to help them.
Couple the aging of America with the fact that more women are having children in their 30s rather than 20s, we’ll likely see more caregivers having to balance their own children’s needs with those of their parents. And yes, it’s more likely to be women who are doing this, as they’re the ones who make up the bulk of caregivers.
I’ve been fortunate so far, largely because my mom is still actively involved in my dad’s life, and because I have so many siblings who live nearby and are able to help. I’m grateful for this, because I do know that this isn’t always the case. As it is, it’s still a challenge to take care of my own kids and find time to care for my folks.
A recent study by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most younger adults feel “unprepared” for their roles as caregivers, and are more likely to feel stressed about it than older adults.
What’s the best way to prepare ourselves for this possibility? As with most challenges in life, what helps the most is arming ourselves with as much information as possible and staying well-informed. Here’s what I’ve learned from other caregivers I’ve met and people who have offered help along the way…
Tips for Taking Care of Aging Parents
1. Enlist help.
Family members and friends may offer a hand—take them up on it. If there’s no one nearby who can help and it’s financially do-able, hire a companion for your parent, even if only for the minimum two or three hours a day a week. You’ll need a break.
2. Familiarize yourself with the community’s resources.
Chances are your parents can take advantage of many of the state or local resources for seniors. If they’re not quite old enough yet, check out local churches, health organizations specific to their condition (like the American Cancer Society or Alzheimer’s Association), or service organizations (like the Salvation Army). At the very least, have a sit-down with a social worker to determine what your options are, and what’s available to you.
3. Know your parents’ insurance plan.
Some services, like in-home care or physical therapy, may be covered by their insurance, while others may not. Either way, you should know what’s what.
4. Have a care plan in place.
If your parents haven’t already laid out their wishes in terms of their long-term care, particularly in the event they are mentally or physically incapacitated, sit down and have a talk with them. If they have, make sure you’ve reviewed it. Questions? There are several online sources to help you get started:
- National Institute on Aging: Advance Care Planning
- CareConversations.org: 6 Steps You Can Take to Plan for Long Term Care Before It’s Too Late
5. Don’t forget your network of friends.
Sharing your frustrations is important for your own sanity. You might also check out caregiver support groups, which are often offered by various health organizations. You’re not alone.
6. Do your own thing, too.
Caregivers can find themselves lost in caring for their aging parent and then maybe their own kids, with little or no time left for themselves. Slot in time just as you’d make time to take your parent to a doctor’s appointment, even if it’s just 15 minutes to take a walk or meditate in another room.
7. Maintain a good relationship with your parent’s primary care physician.
Hopefully you won’t need to call him or her in the middle of the night, but you may want to ask questions or provide updates periodically.
Most of all, don’t be hard on yourself when and if you end up in the caregiver role. You’re doing the best you can, and if something doesn’t quite go the way you wanted, or if you had a bad day and ending up snapping at your mom (it happens!), say you’re sorry and then forgive yourself. No one will deny that being a caregiver is hard work.
Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.