Focus on the Family

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

by Carol Heffernan

Caring for an aging parent is a responsibility few people ever expect or envision. We avoid thinking about our parents falling ill or growing weak. We don't feel equipped to handle the welfare of those who raised us. Confusion, sadness, helplessness jar us during this unsettling transition.

As baby boomers live longer, healthier lives, any assistance that is required typically becomes the children's responsibility. For many families, the discussion about who will take care of Mom and Dad comes on the heels of a crisis. As a result, most families find themselves unprepared to handle their parents' increased dependency.

Still, with the increase in number of older adults comes the increase of adult children caring for their parents. More than 20 million in the U.S. alone provide care for an aging parent or in-law. What's more, families rather than institutions provide 80 percent of long-term care.

So how can adult children, siblings and parents deal with the inevitable challenges that accompany this life transition?

Begin by openly discussing each person's role and responsibilities within the family structure. While caregiving can be extremely stressful, sharing duties is a guaranteed way to ease the tension. Whatever distance family members live from one another, devise a care plan so everyone can be involved.

Addressing the sensitive topic of finances is also a must, as is compiling important personal and financial documents. Finally, take the time to evaluate how to build unity among siblings—in spite of the high potential for tension.

There's no question that many caregivers only find frustration and exhaustion. But with solid support and communication, caring for an aging parent can bring a renewed sense of love, compassion and tenderness into any family.

When Family Members Adjust to Their New Roles

Most parents are accustomed to caring for their children – no matter their ages. So what happens when these roles reverse?

by Carol Heffernan

Within a brief span of time, adult children can find themselves responsible for Mom and Dad. Watching a parent grow vulnerable and dependent is an uncomfortable transition. But shifting family roles are becoming increasingly common as more and more people try to meet the demands of their own children, while feeling the tug to assist their aging parents.

Providing care for parents, whether local or long-distance, lasting months or years, involves major change. With financial implications, strain among family members and difficult decisions at every turn, it's no wonder so many caregivers and potential caregivers feel overwhelmed.

But don't despair. There are practical ways to prepare for and adjust to the new roles within a family.

Story: Caring for Mom

Jean Hoffmann tells about her challenges and rewards of providing day-to-day care for an elderly parent.

by Carol Heffernan

Much that is written about aging parents describes the stresses, the challenges and the headaches that come with providing care. My story shows a different side—a more positive side—of sharing those last years together.

My husband Norman and I were both raised with the model of bringing elderly family into the home. My mother cared for her parents, and Norman's grandmother lived with his family for ten years. Naturally, I figured, our parents would some day move in with us.

After my father died, my mother lived on her own for a decade, keeping up her house and yard, and trying to stay on top of her burgeoning health problems. Her decline was a slow one, but I could see subtle changes.

She would call one of us in a panic, saying she was having trouble eating, when she was really having trouble remembering directions to the grocery store. She couldn't remember which medication to take. Her vision also deteriorated, and her back problems worsened.

We lived several hours away from one another at that point and kept in touch through daily phone calls and frequent visits. During one stay, my mother noticed that the home behind ours was for sale. Her decision to purchase it was a good one; she lived there for five years. Nearly every night, Norman would bring her over for dinner, and we regularly helped with her household chores. But as her daily care became more and more difficult, she knew it was time for a change.

When Mom moved in

While we were remodeling our kitchen, my mother asked if she could come live with us. So we added to the remodel, enlarging a bedroom and bathroom to fit her needs. Since her parents had lived into their 90s, we expected the same—and we wanted her comfortable.

What a blessing it was to have her with us! That's not to say there wasn't work. She needed help with everything from bathing to dressing to going to the bathroom. For some reason, instead of helping herself to food, my mother preferred that Norman or I did this for her, quickly earning her the adoring nickname "The Queen."

Looking back, I know Norman and I could have gotten short with her, succumbed to anger or worried about the future. But we made an effort to laugh as much as possible, see the humor in things and always communicate openly.

I certainly wasn't raised with this kind of honest communication, but I knew it was necessary to sustain a healthy environment. I used to say, "Everybody do the best they can, and we'll forgive the rest." Together, we learned about setting boundaries, not holding grudges and being up front with one another.

Yes, it was difficult to watch her health decline. And yes, it was sometimes a trying experience. My mother, for example, would often ask the same questions over and over again. But I quickly learned that getting irritated and scolding her didn't do any good. When she complimented me on the "new" dress I wore every Sunday to church, I would simply respond, "I'm so glad you like it!"

I knew she wasn't choosing to forget, and I knew aging was a part of life. So I accepted her absentmindedness and made every effort to treat her gently—even when I didn't feel like it.

Living without regrets

My mother's insurance enabled us to get help with her routine care on weekdays. This allowed my husband and me to carve out time for each other. We realized that our relationship had to be the priority.

Speaking of Norman, he was the biggest help, and I couldn't have done it without him. When we married, we agreed we would love each other's parents as our own—and that agreement stuck.

We both knew that the time with my mother was finite—just like the time we spent raising our children. Neither of us wanted those lingering "if only" thoughts when our parents passed away: If only we would've given our parents more time, more love, more attention. Caring for my mother certainly made our lives busier and more complicated. But we wouldn't have done it any other way.

After living with us for two years, mom caught a cold and her body started to wear out. The last day of her life, our family was singing to her from a hymnal, and we could see her mouth moving along with the words. She died surrounded by her loved ones, and we have all the confidence that she continued her song in heaven.

Caring for my mother wasn't always easy. But when she died, I had no regrets. Helping her was a privilege, and I'm so thankful that she was happy while she lived and at peace when she died.

Talking Finances With Mom and Dad

Don't wait until faced with a crisis. Sorting through money matters now can make all the difference.

by Carol Heffernan

If there's one issue that parents and children often find difficult to discuss, it's finances.

It was sure that way for Bruce Madson.

"It's a taboo subject that we've avoided," he says, "even though [my parents] both have health problems and are struggling to stay on top of things."

Maybe your parents have always been hush-hush about their finances. Perhaps talking about money makes everyone in the family feel uncomfortable.

Undoubtedly, though, the day will come when age or unpleasant circumstances will force parents and adult children to hash out this touchy topic. Without question, the best time to address finances as a family is when your parents are relatively healthy and independent.

If a parent becomes ill or disabled, the limitations dramatically change the decision-making process. Fewer options are available and administrative hassles quickly add up.

Speaking with your parents is a necessary first step in avoiding future financial headaches. Consider these strategies when broaching this sensitive topic with your mom and dad:

  1. Involve appropriate family members in the discussion. Talking about a parent's potential incapacity and inability to manage independently is a conversation no family enjoys. Parents may not want to give up money matters, and children may hesitate to control it. But in the event of a crisis, it's crucial to have a plan devised to handle the onslaught of financial decisions.

    That said, parents also have the right to make their own choices, including the making fiscal decisions privately. In this case, it is recommended that your parents meet with a financial planner, lawyer or an advisor who specializes in helping the ill or elderly.

  2. Ask your parents what they feel comfortable handling. Allowing parents to have as much independence as possible is ideal. Encourage them to maintain control as opposed to taking it away—unless their decisions become harmful.

    Are they confident paying the bills, making deposits and dealing with health insurance? Are they aware of frauds targeting seniors? Do they have records of their savings and spending? If necessary, delegate who will follow up with them on these responsibilities.

  3. Make sure personal and financial documents are in order. Concern over a parent's financial well-being is front and center for many adult children.

    These are some of the financial matters to consider:

    • Investment, bank and insurance accounts
    • Social Security numbers
    • Debts and payments
    • Tax returns
    • Savings and investment records and lock boxes
    • Contact information for doctors, insurance agents, accountants, etc.
  4. Plan for an emergency. Before crisis mode hits you, sit down as a family and settle on some key answers that will give everyone involved some peace of mind.

    Who will speak for your parents if they are unable to speak for themselves? Do they have a durable power of attorney to handle financial affairs if they become ill? Has an attorney drawn up a will or living trust in recent years? What about end-of-life care?

    Handling these details now will help protect your parents and their assets in case of an emergency.

  5. Listen to your parents and treat them with respect. Keep in mind that you may not agree with every financial decision your parents make. Still, there is no need to parent your parents.

    Instead of telling them what to do, ask questions that clearly express your concern: "What can I do to help you?" "How do you think we should handle this?" "Do you feel overwhelmed by any aspect of your finances?"

    With good intentions and a willingness to listen carefully, your family can work through this challenging topic one issue at a time. And when the hard work is done, your family will act and react more effectively.

Managing Stress When Caregiving

Consider these suggestions to help ease the emotional and physical strain when you've become the caregiver.

by Carol Heffernan

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.

If you care for others, it is also imperative to make your own health a priority. Consider these suggestions:

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.

Caregiving From a Distance

How can you help when your elderly mother or father who lives many miles away?

by Carol Heffernan

If you are coping with the frustrations, concerns and guilt that often accompany long-distance care giving, you are not alone. Recent estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association indicate that more than 3 million adults provide assistance remotely for ailing or vulnerable relatives, usually aging parents.

Making sure Mom and Dad are well cared for is a difficult challenge; doing so from many miles away has its own set of issues. What happens in an emergency? Are medications properly administered? Who’s there to lend a hand with the activities of daily living?

It’s no wonder common care-giving stress intensifies when involvement is from afar. Oftentimes, aging parents fear “being a burden” to their adult children, so they fail to be forthright about their declining health. Parental pride, privacy and sometimes embarrassment may also prevent adult children from really knowing the severity of a situation.

Still, taking stock of your parents’ needs—ideally before a predicament arises—will help everyone involved.

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

A list of helpful resources, links and organizations.

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