Lately friends have been sharing their struggles when an aging parent has dementia. It’s no longer just about us, professional hypochondriacs. Increasingly, we’re juggling our own lives, families and careers while at the same time caring for elderly parents. Many of us have found ourselves truly sandwiched between generations.
“As our parents live longer, more and more people find themselves in an intense balancing act,” says Katie Klehr, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Northbrook, IL. “Having a parent with Alzheimer’s disease is a constant juggle of needs and priorities. It’s almost more than one person can handle.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 80 percent of care given at home is delivered by family caregivers. This can quickly drain the emotional and financial resources of the best of us.
Just how do you cope?
First, take care of yourself. “If you’re exhausted and spent you can’t care for others. You have to keep your priorities straight so you nourish yourself, your family and your elderly parent,” Klehr says. Focus on managing stress and getting enough sleep. Carve out time for yourself and distract yourself with things you enjoy.
Accept help. Hilary Clinton had the right idea when she said it takes a village. “You need to create your extended village to care for everyone’s needs,” Klehr says. Look at all your caregiving resources – family, friends, medical professionals, hospital, finances, local senior agency – and use them. Bring in every resource at your disposal to share caregiving, whether it’s home health care, nursing home care, or shifts among family members.
Understand family dynamics. Prior family dynamics come into play when deciding what’s best for a parent. “This can be a time of great conflict based on how a sibling is handling the situation, who helps and what they’re willing to do to help. But it can also be a time when people bond and come to the table in a significant way.” Friends and spouses who have been through it can be extremely helpful.
Communicate openly and directly. Emotional issues surface during times of extreme stress. “There needs to be open and direct communication in terms of everyone’s needs,” Klehr says. “How each family balances everyone’s needs and how much they work together and support each other emotionally is critical in terms of coping with stress.”
Seek out professional help. If there are intense conflicts within the family, seek out mental health professionals — whether for individual or family therapy — to help negotiate these issues. Likewise, “If you feel the stress is so great, the anxiety and depression deepens, or you’re not eating or sleeping well, consider consulting a mental health professional.”
Seek advice on finances. Another area of huge conflict for families is money and the cost of long-term care. Sometimes a family lawyer can help with financial issues, and a family therapist can help sort out responsibilities and obligations.
Discuss medical care decisions early on. Some parents make their wishes known before becoming incapacitated, while some don’t. Parents who discuss this early on are doing their children a favor. If the parent is deeply religious it’s very clear what their wishes are. With a cognitive impairment, it’s much more difficult. At the first sign of impairment, discuss these issues with all family members so everyone knows what the parent wants.
- Senior centers (they often have support groups for family members)
- Religious organizations
- Respite care
- The Alzheimer’s Association
- Social workers at social agencies or hospitals
- Hospice for end-of-life care
- Gerontologists and neurologists