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How to keep up with an aging parent's health care needs

Updated on September 22, 2013
Caring for an aging parent can be a challenging adventure.
Caring for an aging parent can be a challenging adventure.

Caring for an Aging Parent

First, I need to be honest with you on this one. I attempted caring for my aging mother and it turned into a hellish nightmare. My opinions are biased and colored by the experiences I endured. In terms of how to keep up with an aging parent, there are several other questions that need to be answered first. The answers to those questions will shape how you keep up with your aging parent’s health care needs.

The first question to consider is “How far will you go?” You need to know what your personal limits are in dealing with an aging parent. Your personal limits include financial limits, the limits of your own health, the limits of your own family, the limits of your beliefs and the limits of the family of origin. I mention knowing how far you will go, since so many people burn themselves out, destroy their families and bankrupt themselves as part of caring for the health needs of an aging parent. In order to keep the catastrophes from happening to you, it is essential you know how far you will go. In my case, I was not going to change her diapers. You will have to decide where you draw the line on how far you will go. At some point, you will need to call in help. If you wait until you are overwhelmed, and dream of putting a pillow over their head in the middle of the night, it is too late. Having such dreams is often a sign that you have done too much and are in too deep.

You will need to know what your financial limits are. How much time and how much money can you spend on them? You may want the best for your parent, but the reality is that you do not have the money to give them the level of care you want them to have. It costs money to have tests, medications and round the clock health coverage. If you care for them at home, there will be trips to the doctors, dentists, eye doctors, and pharmacies that take their toll. Although you may see yourself as a superwoman, who can do it all, the reality is that there are limits. Your own health will limit what you can do for your mother. There are limits to your body strength, and endurance. You can not always pick your parent up and carry them where they need to go. Although Robert E. Lee is inspiring in how he carried his own ailing mother in his arms, most of us do not have the strength to do so with our parent. There are also limits as to how many hours you can spend running around. Those limits are real, and are not a matter of being ‘selfish’.

You need to consider the limits of your family. You may love your parent, yet balancing the needs of your family and your parent is challenging. Being caught between the two is what has been called ‘the sandwich generation’. The needs of each impinge on you physically and emotionally. You may even have to decide on priorities. You may love your parent to the nth degree, but neglecting your own family to care for them, may be fostering resentments about you being absent. If you plan on spreading the care of an aging parent across your siblings, you will need to have enough like-minded siblings. Your brothers and sisters may not feel the same way that you do, or deliver care like you would prefer. These are some of the family limits you have to work within. It is always dangerous to put one generation’s needs way ahead of the needs of other generations. Each must be considered and dealt with.

You will also need to consider the limits of your beliefs. The various religions deal with the value of human life. You will need to consider what those beliefs are and what the limits are. You may find yourself doing more than what is considered necessary or those dictated by the religious writings that you follow. The spiritual limits can be a source of great strength, or great guilt depending on how aware you are of the limits. Most of you have probably not searched the religious writings of your faith to find out how far you are expected to go or required to go. Knowing those limits can help you with caring for your parent. Those beliefs that have a Judeo-Christian root often address what is expected and what is beyond expected, yet it may take a series of conversations with your religious leader to know what those limits are. In my case, I searched to find out what those limits were. In many cases, I felt more guilt than necessary. The Scriptures often provided insights on how I could balance things out and clear up exactly what was expected of me. My aging mother often laid more on me than what was required of me by my beliefs.

You will also need to know what the legal limitations are as well. You may want to think that your parent loves you and would never want to hurt you, since you are caring for them. You would be making a big mistake. The danger comes when caring for them involves their bank accounts. If you deal with their money, or writing checks for them, you are at risk. Although I had a power of attorney and signature privileges on my mother’s accounts, it did not protect me. When the greed and insecurity of an aging parent finds a sleazy lawyer from Texas, the sky is the limit as to what kind of delusional mess they can create together. Slick lawyers can always find ways to make whatever you do look bad. Knowing about legal limits before you take on care of your parent is critical. You could find yourself, like me, being sued for $1 million dollars based on writing a few checks to the pharmacist because your parent wanted you to, but then forgot that they had asked you to do so.

Having a Power of Attorney, Signature Cards, and Guardianship papers in place are helpful, but they will not cover you with 100% safety. The legal liability can put you and your family’s finances at risk. Knowing the limits of what kind of financial exposure you can endure is something you need to consider. Your parent may be sweet, but when the aging begins influencing their mind, they may consider actions that you thought they never would do to you.

You will also need to consider the motives behind you caring for your parent. Motives will give you the energy to carry out caring for them If your motive is love, which is a good thing, you may find yourself pushing yourself further than is good for you. If your motive is guilt, no amount of care is going to reduce the guilt. The aging parent often smells guilt and milks it for all it is worth. They often become insatiable in terms of doing enough for them. If your motive is a sense of duty or honor, that is good as well. Duty and honor often provide structure when the going gets tough. If your motive is one of providing the ‘best’, you may need to recalibrate best in terms of the limits that you can provide rather than one that has no limitation.

In terms of keeping up with caring for the parent, using checklists is often a good place to start. The checklists provide structure that can help you make sure that the required tasks are completed. Besides checklists, having a routine can help you make things run smoothly. With aging parents, providing them with regular times for routine activities provides a sense of stability in their lives. They are often scared since their minds and bodies are not doing what they used to do. Their insecurities are often increased by not knowing what is happening to them or what is going to happen. Keeping them in familiar surroundings is often a way to help them feel more secure. Having to adjust to new living facilities or cities can be disorienting to them. Although you may feel comfortable with where they are at, they may not feel that way. The aging parent may also feel more secure in their old familiar surroundings, even though you consider it unsafe for them.

You will also want to know what each of the physicians they are seeing are prescribing. Physicians often deal with the symptoms that the aging person tells them, and do not always consider the whole picture of interaction of the various medications that they are taking. If you are fortunate to have a physician that monitors the interactions of the various medications, you are in good hands. Knowing what is going on with each physician may require you to obtain written permission to have access to that information. With all the recent health care privacy concerns, some medical professionals have become very protective of medical information. In my case, my mother often hid some of the information about her condition from us, which made caring for her more challenging. Obtaining information from the physicians can trigger paranoid episodes with parents who are used to having high levels of privacy.

Besides knowing what is happening with each of the physicians, you may also want to talk with the pharmacists. There may be generic brands that provide good results or perhaps the prescribed medication does better than generic. Having a good working relationship with the pharmacist can help you with the best choice for your parent. Being familiar with each of the medications that your parent is taking and the dosage schedule is also helpful. When there are a large number of medications, knowing what to take at what time becomes confusing and overwhelming.

These are a few of the many lessons I learned from caring for my aging mother. I know that your plate is probably overflowing. Taking on the care of an aging parent is a HUGE undertaking that should be thought out before you jump into it. In most cases, you will probably find yourself suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggling to keep your head above water. In such cases, swim to the safety of the edge and begin to learn about the safety of limits and boundaries. They can save your own life and keep you from drowning in providing care. You may even want to consider joining a support group that focuses on caring for parents as well.

Tell Me What You Think

How far is too far when it comes to caring for an aging parent?

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    • Sue St. Clair profile imageAUTHOR

      Sue St. Clair 

      6 years ago from I would rather be in Paris


      Thank you for your comments and support. Those daunting challenges are something we all have to face, as unpleasant as they are. I wish that someone had told me many of those things before I found myself caretaking.

    • pals002 profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for your candid sharing of your experience on taking care of your aged mother. Indeed there are many important factors to consider in taking care of our aging parents such as financial limits, our health, family, religious belief and even legal matters. My parents are now still alive and healthy but there will be a day when they will be bed ridden and need my intensive care and help. It is better to be prepared by answering some of these pertinent questions now than suddenly thrown into the deep when the day comes. However I know no matter how well prepared I am, it will still be a daunting challenge when the day comes.

    • Sue St. Clair profile imageAUTHOR

      Sue St. Clair 

      6 years ago from I would rather be in Paris


      Amen! Amen! Amen! It is encouraging to read what you wrote. I feel for those who are thrown into the care situation before they have all their ducks in a row. Although getting all the advice prior to starting the care is nice, it rarely happens.

      I like what you said about the system. The system is powerful and in the wrong hands, it can be turned against the caregiver (as I am painfully aware). Laws are needed to protect the aging from being exploited, but are often used as weapons in the hands of unscrupulous lawyers who believe that they are doing the right thing for their client. They only see the hurting old man/woman whose kids are supposedly taking advantage of them, rather than seeking out the truth of the situation. Finding the truth requires effort, which does not pay by the hour.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      6 years ago from South Carolina

      Your experience in caring for your aging mother highlights some important issues that are rarely talked about. Health care workers and the general public are far more educated on the abuses that some adult children inflict on their vulnerable aging parent but the reverse can also be true- especially when the parent has dementia, becomes paranoid and/or has other mental health issues or previous history of being abusive to others.

      The legal and adult protective systems are geared toward the protection of the aging parent and it can be hard to defend oneself against untrue accusations. Keeping meticulous financial and medical records can be helpful to prove where moneys are spent, but other accusations can be more difficult to defend against.

      Support for the elderly parent and adult child caring for them is vital, yet few families receive such assistance until they are already in "crisis mode".

      Ideally, an adult child should seek legal, financial and therapeutic advice prior to assuming full care of an aging parent.

      I commend you for sharing your own experience so that others may benefit from it.


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