Elderly Woman With Younger Caregiver

If you aren’t in this situation, you know people who are. The kids are off to college, or beyond, and you’ve had the freedom that you haven’t had in decades, maybe you are newly retired, and now you can have “YOU” time. You’ve been meeting other people’s needs and wants for a very long time. Finally, the moment you've been waiting for: travel, winters away from New England, and fewer worries.

Enter stage left, a needy parent, in-law, sibling or other elders for whom you have responsibility. Your fantasy of warmer weather and free time fades away. This is a game changer.

As our elder loved ones need more and more, and we add it into our regular routine, sometimes we don’t realize just how much we are doing for them. We wrap their shopping and errands into our own, we get their housework and laundry done when we are visiting, and maybe while we have a roast chicken in the oven… multi-tasking to the max.

Take us, the children, caregivers, others of significance to this elder, out of the picture, and it doesn’t seem manageable. Maybe it’s a face to face check in every day, which wouldn’t be the same via telephone. So, we do what we do? We forego what is good for us, and what we need and want because we have responsibilities for these seniors in our lives. We help them freely and lovingly, and would have it no other way! Okay, maybe just a little.

What if it wasn’t “either/or?” What if it were “both/and?” How could this possibly be accomplished? Planning is essential. If your elder loved one is overly dependent on you, and you are partially the cause of that (because they prefer the comfort of having you be the helper and advocate), it might be time to change that up. There is nothing wrong with hiring a babysitter to have some time away from your childcare responsibilities or to have another member of the family participate in a way that gives parents some respite, just like there is nothing wrong with getting help for your elder loved one so that you can enjoy your life, activities, and plans that are important to you. But of course, for this to work, we need a plan.

It isn’t realistic to think that you can make a substitution for your role in your senior’s life, just as you jump on the plane to green grass and sunny skies. Creating this “proxy” for yourself is going to take some adjustment for your loved one, and the kinks will need to be worked out.  Most of our elders are set in their ways of doing things. Let’s face it… so are we. The difference is that we can almost completely influence our environment, and if something doesn’t’ happen the way we want it, we can change it. Our elders may not have that sense of confidence, the ability to self-advocate, or to affect the outcome in any given situation to their satisfaction. Over time, we learn "what works and what does not” when it comes to our helping. We didn’t learn the “quirks” overnight, but we have figured it out, and maybe most of the time, it works. Adding in a new person who is going to be helping, and doing many of the things that you do, isn’t going to be the same right away.

Bringing in help may have a short honeymoon phase where it’s all “okay.” Your loved one may see this as temporary and think that they can tolerate anything short term. Maybe, indeed, it is short term while you are away on a short vacation, but it could be an extended trip of months. Initiating a helper might be an easy sell, but the minute something goes wrong, and it WILL, you might hear “this isn’t going to work.” Why? "Because you do it right, the new helper does not, and that’s that."

Well, this situation is complex on many levels. For this week, let’s consider that it is in your best interest to be able to pursue what is important to you. It is okay for your elder loved one to receive help from someone who is not you. Start by having the conversation. That’s where you take a big deep cleansing breath… or five. You know they may not want to hear this but creating over-dependence on you doesn’t serve your elder loved one, or you. Most elders' needs increase over time as they age and as their medical situation becomes more complex. It’s not going to get easier. The more resistance in accepting help from others, the more difficulty they will have coping with hospitalization, rehab, or another care facility. 

Your elder loved one needs to be able to trust, and have a comfort level with, caregivers other than you. Next week, we are going to “dive deep” and identify the many pieces of the pie that make sharing caregiving for your elder loved one not only possible but successful.

Joanne MacInnis, RN, is the founder and president of Aberdeen Home Care, Inc., of Danvers, a concierge private duty home care agency in business since 2001. With 35 years of nursing practice, management and administration experience focused on home care and hospice, Joanne and her team specialize in advising and supporting families addressing the elders in their lives retain dignity and quality of life.