Most people begin to experience the consequences of aging gradually. Since you are aging too, you may observe yourself having certain difficulties even as you attempt to help a loved one who may be further along in years. For example, you may need bifocals, just as your elderly loved one may need cataract surgery. We are all on the same journey toward our final destination. We just have different roles at different times. If your loved one is ahead of you in years or is growing frail more quickly, one of your roles for a while will be that of a caregiver.
Your loved one's difficulties may have increased slowly, making you a caregiver by degrees. Perhaps you first started driving Mom to her home after dinner at your place; then you had to write down important events on a calendar for her; now she needs daily visits so you can be sure she has taken her heart pills. As people live longer, many develop chronic ailments that require more hands-on assistance over a longer period of time. You may have become a caregiver precipitously, after your husband's stroke. Elders often take an abrupt downturn in health after an illness or accident that requires medical intervention and hospitalization.
Either way, you are finding that you must become a caregiver. The role means far more than caring about others or feeling concerned for their welfare. Most likely, you have always felt appreciative of and devoted to your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouse, or older friends. But now they need more than your time and tender feelings. They need help with concrete tasks — paying bills, grocery shopping, deciding when it is time to see a medical specialist, or even changing soiled bed linen at 3 a.m. You may need to arrange for professional services and transport your loved one to appointments and social activities. As your elder's health deteriorates, you might be called upon to supervise financial affairs and medical treatments while working with professionals such as physicians, attorneys, CPAs, and insurance agents. When you assume such tasks and accept major responsibilities for the well-being of elderly adults, you become a caregiver.
When spouses are present as elderly people fall ill, they almost invariably become the principal caregivers. Elderly spouses are often enormously loyal to each other. But this arrangement can be tenuous. If you are a caregiving spouse — unless you happen to be a young one — you probably feel the effects of your own aging. What if you are asked to help your wife learn to walk again after her stroke, but you do not feel all that steady on your own feet? One devoted husband needed to help his wife to the bathroom several times during the night, even though he needed to take pills for his own difficulty sleeping at night. If you are such a caregiver, you might think privately, We could both use help. But since I haven't had a heart attack in 10 years, nobody seems to notice my needs.
When it comes to caregiving, you do not need to do it alone. Because of the needs of the aging population, a growing number of services and devices are available to help you, ranging from transportation services and adult day care to wheelchairs and home modifications. Yet one of the most frequent reasons caregivers give for not using a service is that they were not aware of it. Some caregivers report that they or their aging loved ones were "too proud" to use a service, such as adult day care (although somewere confused about what adult day care is). Fewer people cite cost as a barrier to obtaining needed services.1
When you seek out caregiving options for your elder, community services (especially those coordinated through your elder's local Area Agency on Aging), help from family, or a support group for yourself, it is not a sign of defeat or weakness. You will need a break from caregiving from time to time. High on your list of resources should be services for respite care that will provide opportunities for relief from the day in, day out responsibility.
You will also benefit from the practical guidance of other caregivers, whether they are friends from church or the members of a caregiver support group on the Internet. When a caregiver named George was trying to decide how best to care for his grandma, who could no longer live on her own due to Alzheimer's disease, he called his pastor for advice. Although his pastor had never been through the rigors of caring for an aging loved one, his father had. So George called his pastor's father. He ended up calling the man on a regular basis for advice and emotional support.
"You can read the printed word, look at research on the Internet, and learn about dementia or other diseases, activities that are all well and good for the purpose of educating you, but the best help often comes from someone who has walked a mile in your moccasins," says George. "Somebody who's been through it can tell you, 'Here's what I did right, and here are some mistakes I made.' They can speak from the heart."
On the bad days, look forward; give your complaints to God with an attitude of resting in His perfect will. Remember that God placed you in your particular family and is aware of your needs. He is "a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1 NASB). You might feel that somehow you have to have all the answers, but you do not. Caring for elderly adults comes with some uncertainties and surprises. Accept your human frailty and ask God to provide the strength for each day.
Christians are not meant to carry their burdens alone. As a caregiver, you will need not only professional help and social services from the community; you will also need support, encouragement, and inspiration from your church or religious community. Some churches have explored specific ways to help caregivers; others might be open to providing more assistance if they knew how. Your role may include asking for help that is already available, learning how to receive it graciously, or suggesting ways the church can be more helpful or available.