Living

Coping with caregiving

How to look after your elderly parents' needs

Millions of Canadian daughters should be prepared to return to the nest to look after an aging parent. In fact, in addition to handling a full-time job and raising children, women in a caregiver role can count on spending twice as many hours a month (29) looking after a family member than men. They’re called the sandwich generation and as baby boomers age, your chance of falling into this group increases.

Unfortunately, there’s no caregiver manual on how to look after your parents’ physical and emotional needs and – let’s not forget – your own. Here are some ways to be more prepared and organized when the time comes.

As soon as it becomes clear a parent needs support, hold a family meeting that includes siblings, your children (if they are old enough) and your ailing parent (if possible). The message should be clear: no one person can manage the job alone, says Audrey Miller, a social worker and managing director of Elder Caring Inc., a national provider of in-home caregivers specializing in caring for the elderly. You’ll also want to discuss potential monetary obligations, what to do if family alone can’t manage the responsibilities (for example, when to seek outside eldercare services), who will have power of attorney (check with your provincial Attorney General’s office) and what to do if your parents become unable to make decisions for themselves. If you can all agree on individual responsibilities from the outset – for example, one sibling struggling emotionally with the situation may be best suited to helping out financially rather than making daily visits – you’ll avoid potential conflict and resentment down the road.

Nancy Stone* was lonely when she lost her husband, and each of her seven children tried to spend more time with their 76-year-old mother. But when Nancy grew increasingly despondent, lost weight and spent days in bed, the family became more concerned. Questioning her doctor, they discovered she had been prescribed antidepressants and sleeping pills. While the eldest daughter had been accompanying her mother to doctor’s appointments, she only went as far as the waiting room. As it turns out, the health effects Nancy suffered were all normal symptoms of the medication she was taking, and she eventually went off the regime.

This is a perfect example of why it’s important to visit the doctor along with your parent. Being aware of the progress of your parent’s medical condition, including the treatments and their potential side effects, will help you prepare for and better handle the unexpected. And having direct contact with the treating physician is an indispensable resource. It’s also a good idea to research the specific medical conditions your parent has. Being informed will help you make better decisions with your parent. While you can get started on the Internet, cross-check your research with current health books, additional resources from reliable health-related associations and most importantly, your parent’s doctor.

No family is perfect. However, this is not the time to finally find out why Bobbie is the favourite. Your parent is in a vulnerable situation, and you risk creating unhealthy stress and strain by attempting to address bad blood in the family. “The quality of the care giving is directly related to the quality of the relationship,” says Brenda Higham, executive director of the Alberta Caregivers Association, a non-profit group based in Edmonton. If you don’t think you can put aside your personal issues while providing care, you may be doing both yourself and your parent a favour by getting professional eldercare assistance.

It’s often embarrassing and stressful for a parent to be dependent on a child. Consider getting training from a professional, such as a social worker or a home-care nurse, to help you maintain a level of respect when bathing, cleaning up after and even changing wound dressings for your parent, says Higham.

While the vast majority of informal caregivers report feelings of satisfaction from looking after a loved one, there’s often evidence of burnout, particularly when a parent has dementia. Even when you think you are handling the situation just fine, stress and depression can sneak up on you. Karen Henderson learned this first-hand while looking after her father Ralph for 14 years before he passed away in 2000. When she was finally diagnosed with depression, she received the proper treatment and was able to better manager her caregiver role. Henderson says one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to find a friend or family member who you can lean on for support and advice. For this reason, Henderson launched the Caregiver Network, an organization dedicated to providing resources to informal caregivers.

If you’re looking after a parent in your home full-time, Henderson says you should put yourself under the care of a physician – preferably the same one treating your parent. Ideally, she says, the doctor checks in with you as well at every appointment. Higham adds that scheduling a weekend off through a local respite (provided by hospitals and community services) every couple of months is a must. Type “respite” in Health Canada’s web site for a list of what’s covered in your province.

As you take this journey with your parent, one of the most important things you can do is stay hopeful, says Higham. For some excellent tips on how to communicate hope, check out the resources at the The Hope Foundation of Alberta. Keeping a positive perspective and taking advantage of the time to grow closer to the whole family is perhaps the best way to cope during this inevitable life experience.

*Name was changed to protect privacy