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8 Ways caregivers can be a blessing to their elderly parents

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Whatever type of caregiving situation you're in, these suggestions can help.

My husband and I currently run a house of seven people — a big number for an only child like me, and quite a lot of palates to please. Besides our three children, we have my husband’s mom, who started living with us after her stroke a few years ago. Then my widowed father recently joined our circus to start a new life at age 84 here in North Carolina. He is staying with us as he transitions to his own apartment. I think both are incredibly brave for giving up their former lives to come live with us in the burbs.

Adults like my husband and I who are raising or supporting children while caring for their parents are considered part of the “sandwich generation.” I often wonder how many of us feel like our sandwich is a towering affair of the “Dagwood” variety — multi-layered, delicious and interesting — but with the constant possibility of toppling over at any moment.

It’s lovely having our parents with us, but some days it’s tricky to balance. One child inevitably will have a far-flung sporting event the same weekend my husband is gone and his mom needs to visit urgent care. Or another kid will have to be sent home from school sick just as I’m driving my dad somewhere, forcing me to zoom all over town and forget about the laundry in the washing machine.

The upside is that “helping” isn’t a one-way street. My mother-in-law takes pride in organizing the house, doing the dishes and putting them away. My dad has folded a gazillion loads of laundry, kept an eye on the kids, and tended pots on the stove. That’s the nice thing about a big sandwich.

You might be feeling stressed as your parents age and wonder if you’re up to the task of caring for them. Let me tell you: you are, and any hesitations are totally normal. The Catholic faith teaches us that being a caregiver is a calling. We are chosen simply because we’re there. I take comfort in these words from the website YourAgingParent.com, about Jesus asking John the Apostle at the foot of the cross to watch over Mary:

“How did John come to receive the assignment of taking care of Jesus’ mother? He was there. Then, and now, a caregiver is someone who is there. It’s someone who is present in the sense of concern and service even when he or she can’t be physically present.”

Even when he or she can’t be physically present. I love that — caretaking as a mindset rather than a task.

Whatever type of caregiving situation you have, I hope you can use some of these small insights that I’ve gained in my time as a caregiver …

1. Nurture their independence

Even those who’ve suffered cognitive decline still understand what has happened, and it can be painful. As much as possible, make sure they’re still in charge.

For instance, having spending money when she visits her other son is important to my mother-in-law, so we help her withdraw some even though she likely won’t need it. And throughout my Dad’s transition process, I would call him for his thoughts even when I assumed I knew what he’d want. He often surprise me, as when his traditionalist self unexpectedly chose a whimsical lamp with a brass rhino base for his bedroom.

2. Be patient

Realize that any change in lifestyle, from needing more help at home to relocating, may take a while for your parent to accomplish.

I told a friend who was having a hard time convincing her mom to move here to look for activities that she would like to help her visualize an alternate life path. Sending photos and videos and taking parents on a tour when they visit are also great ideas. A peer group to socialize with is essential: we found an art class for veterans that my dad loves. Not only is the art creation therapeutic, he has made friends with people of various ages and backgrounds, similar to his diverse group of friends back home.

Local churches, senior centers, and community YMCAs offer not just classes but social opportunities and service projects for seniors.

If the stumbling block to a move is cleaning out home and hearth, consider hiring a senior move manager, as we did for my dad. They can help with everything from decluttering and packing up to shredding sensitive documents.

A college friend of mine pointed out that it can be hard to know if your loved one has declined if you live far away, so consider spending a short stretch in their house before moving them so you can accurately assess their needs.

3. Help them age in place comfortably

An intriguing idea for helping seniors stay in their homes — called village networks — has spread across the country. Seniors pay a yearly membership fee for access to volunteers and referrals for things like home repairs, meals, and transportation.

Home care services like Visiting Angels or meal providers like Meals on Wheels can lift some of your worries. The division of aging or senior services where your parent lives can connect you with these and other services.

4. Deal with the money

Have your parents draft wills, healthcare power of attorney, and financial power of attorney as soon as possible. This typically involves a lawyer but is worth the cost. It gives peace of mind because it will allow you or a sibling to pay their bills and manage their affairs should they become cognitively impaired. If they are already impaired, a lawyer may still be able to help you obtain consent.

Do not pool their money with yours. If they can’t manage their own finances, help them with check writing and debit card withdrawals, and keep receipts for everything. Talk to the bank about what can be done if you are worried they may have impaired judgment, such as preloaded debit cards. Let your parents spend their money on things they need or want — this not only maintains independence, but also is a smart financial move. Consult a lawyer for more details; this can be a complicated area, and laws vary by state.

5. Keep a sense of humor

My husband’s mom and I have shared laughs over attempts at communication that involved us talking past one another. My grasp on her native language of Spanish is tenuous, so we make a good pair, because neither of us can judge each other’s faulty speech.

For my dad, he’s a good sport about the fact that things he nagged me about as a kid have still not resolved. I’m still not on time, I take too long in the shower, and my entire family seems averse to shutting off lights when leaving a room. I know this probably bugs him, but I don’t need a lecture and appreciate that we can laugh it off.

6. Call for help

Consider in-person or online support groups — I found a Facebook group for caregivers of those with my mother-in-law’s diagnosis. Open communication with your partner or spouse is essential. The person whose parent needs help will be more emotionally involved and some tasks may actually be harder to complete, so the other person may want to take over those aspects of care.

When multiple siblings are involved, the job can get complicated. A friend who cares for her in-laws along with her husband and his siblings said to try and be clear about who does what, but understand there will be overlap. “In our case,” she said, “it was done partly based on geography (who’s closer to the house to handle the sale) and partly on who is the executor/executrix of the will and who has a healthcare background.”

7. Don’t forget self-care

Keep up with your own routines, especially exercise, sleep and socializing. Time for yourself is essential and will help you to be a better caregiver. Jane Gross, a longtime reporter for the New York Times and the author of the book A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves, said she secretly switched to a four-day work week when in the throes of caring for her ailing mother.

The author was having a hard time recharging, and her mother’s care workers suggested the work switch, telling her to use the free day only for herself. They advised telling neither her mother (she would feel guilty) nor her brother (he might take advantage of her free time). “Indeed, he never knew about it until I wrote the book,” Ms. Gross said.

8. Just make them happy

When my mother-in-law first moved in, we tried to improve her communication skills with things like therapy, flash cards, or computer apps. Nothing really helped, so we switched to a more serene approach with a focus on keeping her happy. A hot cup of tea on a cold day, chocolate treats, some lively salsa music, or simply listening to her grandchildren read a story are little things that bring her light and comfort.

Likewise, I have enjoyed doing things that make my dad happy, like taking him to the library and going out to breakfast. If you are at a loss with how to best help your parents, start by making them happy. It’s a simple as that.

This article was originally published December 2016.

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