Things to Consider when Caring for an Elderly Parent
The sandwich generation
Realizing you are now the caretaker
When we are young, our parents seem strong and invincible. They are our champions and protectors. They laugh with us, cry with us, and comfort us when we are sick. That is why it is all the more heartbreaking when we come to the realization that somehow, without us being aware, the tables have turned. Our parents are the ones needing care. Both of my parents ended up needed total care before they passed. The overwhelming majority of this care was provided by my sister. I am so thankful and proud of her for the amazing job she did taking care of them. Because of her, both of my parents were able to spend their final years in their own home. I moved back to Arkansas in 2010 after living out of state for over a decade. The circumstances that brought me back to Arkansas weren’t great, but I am thankful they happened because it allowed me to be with my mother during her final years. My sister still bore the brunt of the responsibility, but at least I was able to provide some small measure of support. This article details a few of the things I learned from this experience.
Many caregivers feel overwhelmed and isolated
Seek out help
First and foremost you have to come to the realization that no man is an island. You cannot do everything on your own. Seek out support. Your parent’s health care provider, home health agencies, and community support groups are a great resource. You also should hold some open and honest family meetings so that everyone understands what needs to be done and there can be some division of labor. Will others do things exactly the same way as you? Probably not. But that is ok.
Laughter is the best medicine
Try to find humor in the situation
Try to find humor in the situation whenever possible. I can guarantee there will be plenty of frustrations and frayed nerves along the way on both sides; however, a little laughter can make embarrassing or uncomfortable situations easier to tolerate. It used to drive me crazy when my mother would take 30 minutes to take her pills. Why couldn’t she just take them and get it over with instead of worrying about taking them in a specific order. Then there was picking up the endless trail of tissues she would stash everywhere and reminding her to put on her oxygen. None of that matters now. I miss seeing her with her wild hair sticking up all over the place in her favorite, very worn, blue robe (nicknamed “Old Blue”). I think back to the fun times we would have: cheating at Canasta in order to beat Dad, seeing her shaking presents under the Christmas tree, and how she loved Dean Martin.
Many elderly adults face depression
Try to establish a routine
It can be easy to forget that our parents may be scared and anxious about their future. They may feel their bodies are betraying them. Those with the dementia often realize things aren’t right even before their family, prompting them to go to great lengths to try to conceal the symptoms from their loved ones. Providing for a stable routine can provide our elderly parents, especially those with mild to moderate dementia, with an added sense of security. This can be something as simple as visiting or calling at specific times or as detailed a hanging a dry erase board to display the day, date, schedule for the day, etc. Even mild dementia can seem more pronounced when the patient is taken out of familiar surroundings. In these cases, it is especially important to keep the routine as close to normal as possible. It may even be helpful to bring familiar items from home such as their favorite robe, pillow, etc.
Many elderly adults face multiple health issuesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Stay informed about your parent’s medical conditions as much as possible. Be aware of medications your parent is taking and be involved in medical appointments whenever possible. This may mean having some difficult conversations and may meet with some resistance at first. An elderly parent may be reluctant to discuss symptoms and conditions for fear of worrying their family and admitting any frailty. You should seek prompt medical attention if your parent exhibits sudden changes in mood, behavior, or cognition. Something as simple as a urinary tract infection can result in increased confusion and behavioral changes in the elderly.
Create a safe home environment
Make sure your parent’s home environment is adapted to meet any safety concerns. For example, ensure there is extra lighting so they can get to the bathroom safely at night. Raised toilet seats and grab bars can also provide extra safety in the bath. Look for electrical cords and rugs which may become trip hazards. In the case of more advanced dementia, you may even want to consider some type of alarm system for doors in the event of wandering and make sure dangerous items, such as medications, are secured. Some dementia patients may become more disoriented in the late afternoon and early evening. This is a phenomenon known as sundowning and it may be necessary to provide additional supervision during these times to ensure safety. Your parent’s healthcare provider and home health agencies can provide additional ideas for keeping your parent safe based on their specific circumstances.
Prepare for difficult conversations
As our parents get older, we have to prepare ourselves for the fact that some difficult conversations lie ahead. There will probably come a time when your parent will have to hand over the car keys or may not be able to live on their own. Talk about this ahead of time; how will these situations be handled in order to still provide your parent with as much independence and dignity as possible.
Know your parent's wishes
You should get to know your parent’s wishes in regards to future medical care as well as funeral and burial arrangements. It is much better to have these conversations ahead of time than when you are going through the stress and anxiety of an illness or death. My mother suffered from severe peripheral vascular disease. A few months before her death, some bypasses she had done several years earlier began to fail. This meant her leg was not getting proper blood flow resulting in a lot of pain. The surgeons were able to do one more bypass to restore some blood flow to the extremity. They told us at the time this was really a temporary fix and future bypasses probably would not be a possibility. Sure enough, a few months later, she began to have more trouble. The doctors were able to restore some blood flow with the help of a clot-busting drug. But we knew the end was coming. It was just a matter of time before the blockage returned and there were no more procedures to be done or surgical options. We brought Mom home on hospice care. Our hospice nurse was a great comfort and helped us keep Mom as comfortable as possible.
Cherish the time you have
Finally, cherish the time you have with your loved one. There will be plenty of bad days, but there will also be some beautiful moments that make it all worthwhile.
© 2015 Vicki Holder