It’s not uncommon for today’s American family to have at least one family member in their 80s or 90s. Perhaps you are in your 40s and started accompanying your parents to their doctor’s appointments or taking them shopping. Or, you are in your 20s and being asked to drive your grandparents to the Thanksgiving gathering because “grandpa doesn’t drive at night anymore.” Maybe you are older yourself and caring for an ill spouse. If this sounds familiar, then you are a family caregiver….providing assistance to someone who needs it. A “caregiver” cares for people whereas a “caretaker” takes care of things or situations.
According to the Illinois Department on Aging, one in four households (25%) takes on the role of caregiver and 54 % of baby boomers are caring for elderly parents. About a quarter of caregivers are caring for ill spouses. The Department also says that many caregivers feel good about giving back to the people they love and who took care of them. At the same time, they can face challenges that can lead to stress over-load, depression and anxiety (Jensen, et. al., 2016)
What are some of these challenges?
There is simply not enough time. These are the words often spoken by the caregiver in the “Sandwich Generation.” They are already juggling work, home and care of their children or even grandchildren into their busy week. The result can be the caregiver giving up their own self-care. Trips to the gym are replaced with trips to mom’s house and weekend fun becomes mowing dad’s lawn. Or, the spouse caregiver struggles their own aging limitations and feelings of loneliness while caring for an ill spouse.
Then there are the financial costs. For instance, missing time from work, hiring additional help, paying for medication; any of these can create stress for the adult child caregiver who is facing college education costs and saving for their own retirement. There may be resentment from the caregiver’s spouse or children. Sometimes conflict occurs in the extended family with siblings upset that they are not equally sharing in the care of their parents. On the other hand, it may be a time when extended families reconnect as they come together to care for the older family member and support each other.
There are the emotional aspects for caregivers as well. Sadness may occur in seeing the people who were once the caregiver’s pillars of strength now become frail and the role of giving care is reversed. Anger and resentment may occur if the caregiver is overwhelmed or otherwise feels trapped. Then there is the added complication of feeling guilty for feeling resentful. After all, the caregiver asks, shouldn’t I be grateful that I still have parents or that I still have a spouse! Fear of parental abandonment is not unusual for the adult child caregiver, even if he/she is older themselves. Further emotional distress can occur if the relationship with the parent was never good, or the marriage was full of conflict.
Another emotional consequence of seeing parents aging is a reminder of the caregiver’s own mortality. Spouses face the grief of losing the partner they knew and the likely of growing older without him or her.
Given the responsibilities and emotional upheaval caregivers can face, it’s no wonder there is genuine concern for caregiver. How can caregivers care for themselves and how can extended family members support the caregiver?
In her book How to Care for Aging Parents, Virginia Morris offers many suggestions including the following:
- Acknowledge the caregiver role. Recognize being in it and that it can be a big job. Families can help by validating the important role the caregivers are playing in the care receiver’s life.
- Assess the situation. What are the care receiver’s needs? What are the caregiver’s needs? Include what the caregiver can do and cannot do.
Identify realistic goals. If the care receiver is at the end of life, it may be hard for the caregiver to accept that care is only focused on comfort.
- Accept limitations. All parties need to accept their own limitations and the limitations of others. For instance, caregivers cannot do it all and sometimes have to “let things go.” Similarly, care receivers cannot always have things their way or the “old way.”
- Develop a caregiving plan. Think in terms of a caregiving team and identify potential helpers. Include extended family members, friends, community agencies and professionals.
- Communicate. Keep the caregiving team informed of changes in the situation. Re-evaluate needs and alter the plan if indicated.
- Care for the caregivers. Incorporate into the plan ways for caregivers to ensure their needs are met including health, finances, social and recreation.
- Emotional care. It’s helpful for caregivers to recognize the value of what they are doing and how the care receiver’s life would be if they were not helping. Support groups are a good resource to help caregivers feel less alone, as well as a place to obtain information and share ideas.
It is not uncommon for caregivers to seek professional help for caregiver stress. It is particularly important if the caregivers notice signs of depression like pervasive sadness, change in sleep or appetite habits, negative thinking or overwhelming worry or resentment. In my practice over the past 20 years, I have helped caregivers with these issues, as well as with the grieving process that can occur while providing care or in anticipation of the care receiver’s ultimate death. Family consultations can also benefit families in developing a plan of care, identifying resources and helping families work cooperatively together as a caregiving team.
- Donna Siller, LCSW , Extension 402
Who Are Caregivers? Illinois Department on Aging. 2016
Jensen CJ, Inker JK and Gendron TL. Supporting Patients and Peers Who are Family Caregivers. J Fam Med. 2016; 3(3): 1056.
National Alliance for Caregiving and Evercare (2007). Family Caregivers-What They Spend, What They Sacrifice: The Personal Financial Toll of Caring for a Loved One. Minnetonka, MN: Evercare & Bethesda, MD.
How to Care for Aging Parents, Virginia Morris. 2014. Pages 49-58