If you're one of the many -- approximately 44 million -- adult Americans who are helping to provide care for their aging parents, you're probably well aware of how stressful a role it is to take on. Even if your parents are in good health, but just need a little help with certain activities, it doesn't mean you worry any less about them. In fact, you may worry more, since your concerns involve a future you can't clearly picture, and ailments you can't predict.
Whether your aging parents are just now losing some of their independence or already require in-home elder care or residency at a nursing facility, there's a lot to be stressed out about when it comes to their care.
You worry about their health and wellbeing, their declining abilities and their shrinking independence, and about being able to pay for the care they currently or one day will need.
The good news is there are things you can do to help reduce your stress caused by caring for your aging parents. First, we'll look at a piece of advice we don't receive nearly enough.
Share the Workload
You may be hesitant to reach out to others for help with your aging parents. This may be for any number of reasons. Perhaps you know how difficult caring for your parents is on yourself, and feel bad introducing that element of difficulty into another's life. Maybe you're afraid someone will be irresponsible or, even worse, malicious in their dealings with your parent without your knowledge.
Most people, especially relatives or friends of your parents, are happy to lend a hand and sympathize with how difficult it is for you to shoulder the entire burden.
If you don't reach out for help, that help may never materialize and in time you will become overwhelmed and exhausted. You may find that any "you" time in your life has disappeared. Being a primary caregiver to an aging parent can affect your work, friendships, romantic relationships, and even your relationship with your own children or other relatives.
These are all reasons why it's important to share the workload when it comes to caring for aging parents. Talk to their friends and neighbors and see if they're able to check in on a certain day of the week. You can coordinate with other family members to help with errands, grocery shopping or doctors' appointments.
Next, we'll discuss planning and how it can reduce your stress.
Make a Plan
When caring for aging parents as they begin to lose independence, it's easy to get in the habit of responding to their needs -- and considering them for the first time -- as they pop up. In doing so, some options aren't available or even known about when we make care decisions. But making a plan with an aging parent or parents about their long-term care in advance allows you to create a blueprint that satisfies everyone involved.
Most importantly, if you die unexpectedly before your parents, a plan will still be in place for their long-term care.
To create a plan, find out if their health insurance covers long-term care; usually, it does not. Become familiar with what Medicare and Medicaid will and will not cover. Contact an insurance company to see if long-term care insurance is available to your parents. Your parents may also be good candidates for a reverse mortgage, in which a portion of the equity in their home is converted into cash.
Don't forget that a healthy diet and exercise plan are important parts of planning for aging parents' long-term care. By staying active, your parents will improve their health, independence and longevity. As you speak with them, all parties will develop a better idea of what services and resources are available, and how they will be obtained.
It may often feel like it when you're caring for an aging parent, but as we'll discuss next, you're not alone.
Join a Support Group
Not only is it stressful caring for aging parents, it often also feels like a thankless and lonely responsibility. Caregiver-children can fall into a rut and feel isolated, and get a growing sense that professional goals and personal dreams have been snatched away. Resentment can build up, as the caregiver becomes increasingly exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
Many others are going through this as well; in fact, about one in five adult Americans is caring for another adult in their lives [source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services].
Whether you're dealing with a parent with Alzheimer's or just caregiver burnout, there are support groups with people who are going through the same thing, and who may be able to provide advice or simply lend an ear.
Support groups can be found through government Web sites and through groups such as Family Caregiver Alliance and Strength for Caring. Your church or place of worship may have a support group, as well. There are online support groups, which substitute forums and chat features for in-person interaction, and this may be ideal for those who aren't able to spend much time out of the house.
Next: Advice your own parents might give you.
Take Care of Yourself
When you care for your aging parents, it can seem like -- and is -- a full-time job. You may help them with meals, trips to medical appointments, grocery shopping, outings, yard care, house cleaning, and even bathing or using the bathroom.
With all of this going on, it's important -- and also very difficult -- not to forget to take care of yourself. But if you don't, you may find yourself physically and emotionally unable to give them the level of care you want to provide in the first place.
Here are some common signs of caregiver stress:
- Social isolation
- Sleep problems
- Health problems
If any of these symptoms become a reality in your life, recognize them as red flags that signal your need to rest, de-stress and tend to your own life. Make sure you're eating right and getting daily exercise. Build leisure time into your schedule, and make sure you get to vent now and then to a close friend or a good counselor. Investing in your own wellbeing can be the best way to make sure your aging parents are cared for themselves.
Next, handling the stress of aging parents by accepting it. (Well, some of it.)
Know What You Can and Can't Change
It's stressful for everyone involved when aging parents experience physical and/or mental decline. A child caregiver may feel crushed over and over again as hope is held for improvements that don't come. Hours and hours of care each week may only serve to bear witness to continued decline.
If you've decided to act as caregiver, know what you've jumped into: One study determined family caregivers spend an average of 21 hours a week providing care for older adults [source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services].
But some stressful circumstances can be resolved by reaching out to others who can help refer you to services. Try to create a network of assistance specific to your parent's needs.
If your parents are still independent, know that won't always be the case. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that adults now turning 65 will -- over the course of their lifetime -- require three years of long-term care, two of those years being care provided in the home [source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services].
But caring for and spending time with aging parents can be as rich and rewarding an experience as it is stressful. If you can make peace with the inevitabilities of the situation, you can have more appreciation for the time and experiences still waiting for you and your parents. Being with your aging parent in the final stages of his or her life may very well end up being one of the most beautiful or meaningful experiences of your entire life.
See the next section for lots more information on handling the stress of aging parents.
What happens when the child becomes the parent? Being a caregiver to your parent can be a hard job. Get tips and information on when a child becomes the parent.
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