Caregiving — Part 1 of 5

Very often letters I receive prompt me to write about issues some of which only partially relate to money. So it was when I got an email from a childhood girlfriend in Jamaica. She wrote:

This morning I was reading “when kids move back home”. I wish you’d write something about when elderly parents have to move back in with families. I don’t know if this is happening in Canada but in Jamaica it’s happened with all my friends. The problem is not only the financial and emotional strain but also the interaction with the other siblings who all have opinions on what you’re doing or not doing for the parent and whether you’re taking advantage or not. I have a friend, a couple, who have moved back in with his mother who lives in a big old house. They don’t pay much rent but maintain the house, which takes a lot, pick up all the bills and act as chauffeur, friend and everything else, only to be accused of “taking advantage” by the other siblings. It is a real problem here and of course will get worse as the economy worsens.

It’s an issue everywhere! Believe it or not, about six million Canadians depend on a family member or friend to help them make it from one day to the next. According to Statistics Canada, one in five Canadians 45 years and over provide care to a senior. While 62% of these primary caregivers have been providing care for at least three years, 20% have been providing it for more than ten years. In the U.S., the estimate is 44.4 million Americans (21% of the adult population) are providing care. Nearly half say they provide eight hours or less of care per week while about one in five say they provide more than 40 hours of care per week. And the average length of caregiving there is just over 4 years.

One option for caregiving is to have your lovey move in with you. But it isn’t all sunshine and roses. The initial adjustment to having a mother, father or some other relative as a living-mate is never easy. One woman I interviewed for a story several years ago described it like this:

“She took over my life, my household, my friends. She wanted to be in everything. I felt I couldn’t lock the door to my own apartment in our duplex because I’d be locking her out. She always took that unlocked door as an open invitation. She was pushing my buttons. We were having a rocky relationship because we seemed to make small things into huge arguments. What I learned is that you can’t get into arguments dealing with someone of my mother’s age. I felt guilty when I wanted to go out for dinner with my husband and she’d be pissed off because she wasn’t going too.”
Despite the fact that life as a caregiver is no walk in the park, loads of people are determined to keep their loveys at home to the end. She sees it as a matter of trust. But there are things you can do to ease the weight. Make sure you:

  • involve your loved one in as many aspects of planning as possible.
  • find out what is available within your community to help you take on this task so you can have some relief and not burn out.
  • maintain close contact with your loved one’s doctors – but don’t take everything a doctor says as gospel. Question the things doctors suggest. Decide for yourself if that’s in your parents’ best interest at this stage of their lives.
  • discuss end-of-life issues and preferences so you can honor your loved one’s wishes.
  • don’t try to force them to do things because you feel it’s in their best interest.

Taking on the role of caregiver often brings strong emotions including denial, resistance, exploration and commitment. Some phases take only moments or days to complete while others may last much longer. Knowing what to expect can help you cope:

: If you’re thinking “This isn’t happening,” or “This isn’t going to affect my home life at all,” you’re in denial. A sense of panic, anxiety, or avoidance are pretty typical.

Resistance: If you’re thinking, “Why me?”  you’re experiencing pangs of resistance.  You may doubt your ability to cope, be frustrated by what you’re having to deal with or be distressed by your new role.

Exploration: If you’re thinking “ Maybe we could renovate the bathroom to be wheelchair accessible” or “Home support could help so I can continue to work,” you’re exploring y our options.

Commitment: Once you’ve accepted your new role, making plans based on your new circumstances, you’ll feel more in-control of your life. You’re also willing to share responsibility with others who can help.

Taking on the role of caregiver can also bring familial conflict. Caregivers often find that any problems that were around when the family was growing up turn up again in spades. The distinction between “girl” work and “boy” work rarely changes, which is why it falls to women to be caregivers far more often than to men. Siblings end up angry over the care, or the perceived lack of care, of a parent. They get ticked off over money and belongings. And sometimes the squabbling is so bad there’s never a resolution.

If your family is determined to avoid this kind of conflict, start by sitting down together and talking through what needs to be done. Clarify each person’s strengths, and the level of involvement each person wants to have. Don’t wait for people to say, “Tell me if you need anything.” Assign duties to each member for the family. You may need a third party to help walk you through some of these decisions if there are childhood grievances that may still be rearing their ugly heads. It could be a therapist or a social worker or someone from your local religious organization.

Make sure you keep talking to each other. Regular family meetings, whether that be dinners or a monthly coffee-break are good ways to update sibs about a parent’s condition. For those who are further away, use e-mail messages, letters or conference calls.

Don’t fall into the trap of taking it all on and then whining when no one wants to get in your way. Listen to their opinions and be willing to compromise. Let them know that their help really is wanted and needed. And ask siblings to take care of specific tasks. Even those who live far away can help by making regular check-in phone calls or locating services.

Remember: “You can’t do it all. You’re not Superman you know!”

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