Joan Johnson remembers when her parents started becoming dependent on their children. She remembers her brothers and sisters talking at length about their care options. A nursing home, an assisted-living facility, hiring in-home care.
Ultimately, family members chose to care for their parents themselves.
"We thought it would be easier than it was," says Joan. "My mother and father ended up needing 24-hour assistance, and while we were happy to do this, we should have been taking better care of ourselves. It was difficult, emotionally, to see them deteriorate, and the mounting responsibilities really took a toll."
Providing day-to-day and even minute-to-minute care for an aging parent can be tremendously stressful. Caregivers suffer symptoms so severe that they themselves become known as "hidden patients;" they fail to notice the signs of stress in their own lives.
When the attention is so focused on their parent, numerous and potentially harmful symptoms go unnoticed in the lives of the adult children. What's more, the warning signs of stress can attack so subtly that they're difficult to detect—and this can create a real danger.
Studies show that more than half of all caregivers suffer from depression, while the majority experience what's commonly referred to as "caregiver stress."
It's no wonder, considering many who care for a parent also juggle a multitude of responsibilities. Full-time jobs, parenting their own children and household duties all add to already high levels of stress. In the process, it's common for caregivers to put their own health, feelings and well-being aside. The results can be damaging: anxiety, sadness, guilt, and a whole host of physical ailments.
If you are in a caring for aging parents, recognize the warning signs, then deal with the stress immediately.
- Unusual sadness, moodiness or anger
- Social withdrawal from activities and friends
- Fatigue, exhaustion and difficulty sleeping, either too much or too little
- Change in eating habits, and weight loss or weight gain
- Recurrent headaches, stomachaches and colds
- Difficult concentrating on other areas of your life, possibly resulting in a decline in work performance
- Unexplained irritability
- Feelings of dread, hopelessness and depression
If you care for others, it is also imperative to make your own health a priority. Consider these suggestions:
Create lists and establish a daily routine. Keep track of tasks, then balance, prioritize and delegate responsibilities. Most importantly, modify your schedule to avoid anxiety and exhaustion.
Ask for help when you need it. Enlisting the support of friends and loved ones does not make you appear weak. It is of utmost important that you care for yourself in order to provide good care for your parent. Looking beyond immediate loved ones, many cities provide adult care and other services for the elderly, and many churches offer programs for seniors. With safe, friendly environments and plenty of activities, use outside care to give yourself and your parent a break.
Take care of your body and mind. Besides fitting exercise into your schedule and maintaining a balanced diet, it's crucial to find time to relax, pursue a hobby and connect with friends. While leaving a parent in someone else's hands is difficult, getting away at least a few hours a week is critical. Neglecting your own physical and emotional health leaves you vulnerable to disease and exhaustion.
If you feel depressed, get help. Caregivers are at tremendous risk for depression, yet many do not realize that they are depressed. These feelings can develop over time and will become progressively worse if not treated. Instead of hoping this condition will just go away, seek medical help; it'll make all the difference.
Regularly talk with a counselor, support group or close friend. Even though you may not want to discuss your feelings and frustrations, it's beneficial to find an outlet. A parent may have behavioral issues—yelling, hitting, wandering from home—that stir up unfamiliar and very painful emotions. A sympathetic listener could provide the support, comfort and perspective you need to get through the day.
It's worth noting that caring for an aging parent—while challenging—can have many positive effects on the whole family. There's an added sense of purpose, the ability to nurture an intergenerational bond and the knowledge that you're making a difference in the life of your parent.
Giving proper care and attention to yourself and your loved ones will create a healthier, happier environment sure to improve everybody's quality of life.