One agonizing question that is asked by adult children is: “How do I deal with the reality of leaving behind the life I had in order to become the primary caregiver to my parents?” The wording to this question may vary, but the question is basically the same. How do we cope with this major upheaval in our lives? It may sound selfish to some, but to caregivers who dove into caregiving with full hearts and no planning, then ended up sustaining this life-altering mode for months and often years, it’s a perfectly rational question.
Placing Your Life on Hold
People put their lives, as they know them, on hold in order to care for others. That’s unselfish. But when “hold” becomes the new norm, there’s a mental adjustment to go through. And sometimes that includes dealing with simmering resentment. Up front, it is constructive to remind ourselves that immediately sending off a slowly declining parent to an assisting living facility or convalescent center would be considered shockingly inconsiderate, even hateful, in some countries. In many nations, the aged are accorded special respect, even reverence. Without fail, they are nursed in the homes of adult children or relatives until close to death. In the United States, we tend to enroll seniors in these facilities earlier, and that’s okay when it becomes too nerve-racking and physically impossible to care for failing parents.
Adjusting to the new normal
Most people go into caregiving mode with full hearts and uplifting intentions. Here is a way a healthy thinking process might work: “Hmm, this could go on for years. I’d better plan it out. If I move to part-time at work, have more child care and spend mornings caring for my parents’ needs, it will be difficult, but possible. If I continue to work full time, I’ll have more for retirement, but I can’t do it all. I have to plan this out.”
No, we just dive in. Dad has a stroke, so of course we are there to help. He survives but needs a great deal of care. Mom can’t handle the hard physical work of caring for Dad. And she’s growing forgetful. So, it’s up to us. We make sure our folks get in-home help and we make adjustments in our own lives so we can give them maximum help. Sometimes, we quit jobs or go to part-time work in order to care for our parents.
No matter what our age when we begin caregiving, caregiving is likely going to change our lives as we’ve planned them. If we have kids at home, they will have to adjust to sharing their time – with getting less of you. If you are older when caregiving enters your life, it often affects your retirement plans.
Sure, some of these questions are tough. It’s not always easy to delve into our own reasons for doing what we do and coming up with truthful answers. Caregiving can easily turn into martyrdom, and that isn’t good for anyone. One great option before eventually moving parents into facilities is to hire companions to take some of the pressure off of you. They can spend time with seniors in the home or they can take them for fun outings, important errands or doctor’s appointments.
If we eventually have to move our parents into care facilities, they may hold it against us. If they don’t see us daily, they may also complain and accuse us of cruelty. But are they really at risk? If so, we need to look for a way to fix that, whether it’s through Social Services or other community services. Check your state’s website and find their version of “aging services.” Under that link, you should find ways your state uses federal funds to help elders and give help to caregivers. Each state has a version of the Family Caregiver Support Program. It may go by a different name in your state, but they generally give much-needed support – both practical and emotional.
If you don’t have siblings to help you look for care options, or you have them but they truly refuse to help, you won’t be the only person the Family Caregiver Support Program has heard this from. These folks should have some help for you on the local level. If you live in an area where there exists an Area Agency on Aging, they provide a great deal of community support.
Do not give up until you get some help. If you need to move your elders into assisted living, then do your homework and find the best option available. Assure them that you aren’t abandoning them, but you can’t care for them all alone. Most of the time, they will adjust. Often, once they see you won’t budge, they will resign themselves to it and actually enjoy aspects of facility life.
The point is, you must find some balance in your life. If you go years being eaten up with resentment, your own health will suffer. And you won’t be as good a caregiver as you want to be. Far better to find some respite and balance your life, once the emergency that got you into caregiving has passed, than to have your own life go down in flames. When of sound judgment, that is not what your elder would want for you.