The Stresses of Caring for an Elderly Parent



illustration by emma moreman

Every morning at 9, like clockwork, Cathy Mayo picks up the phone and calls her 94-year-old mother, who lives in an apartment just six doors down from her in Bow, in order to wake her up. The routine is practically the same every day, says Cathy, because her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, thrives on routine. She has been her mother’s primary caregiver since her dad passed away nearly two years ago, and she took care of both her parents before his death.

Up until 2011, her parents were pretty healthy and self-sufficient despite being nonagenarians. When her mother developed dementia, Cathy says her father took over the cooking and the housework until it got to be too much for him and he asked Cathy to help out. Then, in December of 2011, her father fell and hit his head on a cement floor, leaving him increasingly confused and unable to continue doing everyday tasks like writing out checks or administering medicine, so Cathy took over those duties as well. The following year he passed away in December 2012, just seven days shy of his 96th birthday.

After he passed away, Cathy and the rest of the family realized how much her mother’s dementia was progressing. “Dad had failed so quickly that we forgot that mum was failing gradually too,” she says.

Aging doesn’t happen in a straight line; people age at different rates. Even different parts of the same person — whether their mental, biological or social sides — decline differently. Which is one of the reasons that makes caring for an aging parent so difficult. Since no two people have the same needs, there’s no textbook way to care for an elderly parent, even though so many are doing it.

According to Caregiving in the US, a study done for the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP, 29 percent of the country’s adult population — some 65.7 million people — are caregivers. This is about one-third of all households. And more than two out of three caregivers, like Cathy, are women. 

While no doubt it’s difficult to grow old, caring for an aging family member has its own physical, emotional and financial tolls on the caregiver too. For Cathy, helping her mother shower and dress, plus doing all the housekeeping, laundry and errands for her and her husband, as well as her mother, was taking a physical toll on her back. She finally hired someone to come in every Tuesday to help out.

Although it was a rocky start — her mother, who had initially agreed to having someone help, refused to undress and let someone else shower her — Cathy stood firm, taking her mother aside and telling her that she needed the help. “It was a hard conversation,” says Cathy. “I had to hold onto her and look at her, and remind her that we had all sat in a meeting and agreed to this.” 

Along with doctor appointments, paying bills and making sure her mother is taking her medications, “I’m always checking on things: checking the refrigerator to make sure she has enough stuff or is drinking enough so that she doesn’t get dehydrated, checking the mail to make sure she doesn’t miss any bills,” says Cathy. Her mother has never written a check in her life, says Cathy, so she writes the checks out for her mother but lets her mother sign it so that she sees what she’s paying for — again, to give her mother some semblance of independence.

The financial aspect of Cathy’s situation is better than most. Already retired, Cathy doesn’t have to miss work for doctor appointments or should her mother get sick. Some aren’t so lucky. According to another survey by MetLife, absenteeism due to caregiving resulted in losses of more than $33 billion to employers. And caregivers lost out on more than $3 trillion — an average of $300,000 in total earnings, retirement, and Social Security benefits — while caregiving.

"It’s hard because you’re still the child."

More so than the physical or financial toll, Cathy finds the emotional aspect of caring for her mother taxing. She often finds it hard to separate daughter and caregiver. “Frustration is one of the words used, because it’s your parent and it’s hard because you’re still the child and when they become stubborn and childlike, many times because of the Alzheimer’s, the reasoning is just not there — it’s like you sometimes can’t really believe who this person is. You say to yourself, ‘You look like my mother but who has taken your brain?’” She adds that it’s hard to reconcile that the mother whom you always went to for advice and answers is no longer there. “You are waiting for a response that you’re not going to get, and that’s very frustrating and heartbreaking at the same time.”

She half-jokes that she thinks it would be a lot easier to take care of someone else’s parents then her own. “When I was a hairdresser, I had a lot of elderly customers when I used to go into nursing homes and do hair. I’d see friends taking care of elderly parents and I’d have a nice rapport with their mother but they’d be saying that their mother is driving them crazy. You’d get two different stories. Too many personal things come into it, especially with dementia. It’s something that you think, ‘Oh yes, I can do this,’ until you actually open the door and step in.”

Luckily, she has found several outlets to relieve her stress — from long car rides with her husband to lunch with friends. Counseling with her minister has also helped gain clarity. “He said to me, ‘Cathy you think you can handle everything but you can’t handle it, something needs to be done,’” she says. “So I started talking to my doctor, looking for some classes and reading some self-help books. I don’t know if it makes it easier, but it puts things into perspective better.”

She also found a caregiver course at her local senior center, which she said was not only informative but eye-opening. “It was amazing how when we started the first class, they asked us, ‘So what are some of your frustrations?’ and we wrote them down on the board. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I feel all those things, we’re all on that same page.’ It’s good to hear other people’s perspectives and realize that you’re not alone.”


How Caregivers Can Stay Healthy

Taking care of a family member, like an elderly parent, saps energy and raises stress levels. Experts recommend these helpful hints:

  • Eat healthy, exercise and avoid alcohol and smoking so that you don’t become worn down and sick.
  • Find hobbies and activities that you love; keep and/or expand your social networks to avoid isolation and get valuable emotional support.
  • Know when to get help and how to find it; investigate programs and services that are available in your area. You can find support groups by asking your doctor, nurse, or social worker.
  • Consider contacting your church or other religious institution.
  • Join an online chat room.

 

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