Louise is a 58-year-old single woman with a successful career as an executive manager. She recently moved her parents to town so she could give her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and her father, who has debilitating arthritis and hearing loss, the attention they need without having to travel 110 miles to get to them. Balancing work time with parent care time has become the challenge of her lifetime, yet she is committed to ensuring that her parents get the care they need.
Morris is an 80-year-old retiree, in the fifth year of his second marriage. He had been married to Evelyn for 50 years until she died from cancer seven years ago. In the last year, his wife, Joy, has been diagnosed with dementia, and Morris, who was finally experiencing strength and better health after his years of caring for Evelyn, is now facing another round of caregiving. Joy’s children live nearby but all but one have been somewhat estranged for years.
Despite significant variations, these real stories share a common thread: dementia, caregiving, life balance. These scenarios will become even more widespread as baby boomers reach retirement age, with many still supporting their adult children while faced with their parents’ waning health. According to a recent study by MetLife, individuals 65 and older will be caring for their aging parents longer than they cared for their children. In juggling caregiving responsibilities, many will have to adjust their work schedules and many will succumb to increased stress and symptoms of depression.
The statistics demand a closer look at our caregiving roadmap to learn from the experiences of others who have taken this journey.
Balance is key. Utilizing resources available through family and community networks will ensure greater resilience when caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
Think of a swimming pool. At the shallow end, one can stand, but it is very difficult to swim. At the deep end, one can swim, but can’t stand. Finding that place in the pool where one can both swim and stand will give the bather the best chance for both…exercise or investment of one’s energy on one hand and the opportunity to catch one’s breath or in this analogy, find some respite, on the other.
How is this related to the plight of our caregivers? First, each must assess the needs of their loved ones to determine the minimum amount of care required to maintain their loved one’s health and well-being. The lowest possible denominator of care is the shallow end of the caregiving pool. Providing the least amount of care is both unsatisfying to the care recipient and will ultimately negate the effort made by the caregiver.
In contrast, doing it all alone, without a break or with little utilization of available resources, is living in the deep end. Creating a quilt of care providers is the essence of healthy caregiving. One caregiver cannot and should not do it all alone. Caregivers, who “over give” get exhausted, burnt out or even become sick if they stay in the deep end too long. They need to recognize that every time they take on more responsibility, they are saying “no” to something else. Evaluating what they may have to give up as they take on greater and greater responsibility helps caregivers remain focused on balance.
Life balance is a tool that wise caregivers utilize: the better balanced their lives are, the better care they can provide to their loved ones. To stay balanced and to build resilience, caregivers must utilize outside resources—adult day centers, home health aides, etc.—so that their loved ones continue to receive care while they take a break or meet their own medical, emotional, social needs. The healthiest caregivers are those who are aware of their own self care and pay attention to exercise, nutrition, sleep and social activities.
By permitting themselves to utilize other resources, caregivers will expand and strengthen the network of support. Does Louise’s employer provide benefits for those caring for family members—like lunchtime support groups, discounts with local day centers, flex time? Family-friendly employers can help ensure that their caregiving employees have the best chance at maintaining their work responsibilities while attending to their family member’s needs.
In Morris’s case, can he see if Joy’s adult children will set aside past issues and now help care for their mother? Can the one involved daughter facilitate a family meeting to attempt to bring them all in, even if it is only for financial support or coordination with doctors, etc., rather than hands-on care? Mediators, social workers and care consultants facilitate these types of family meetings in which tasks and needs are identified and assigned to the willing parties.
Every caregiver will be faced with these types of challenges, but balancing their caregiving responsibilities with work and wellness activities will help them find the center of the pool, where they can both provide quality care and spend time recharging their own batteries to enable them to continue without burning out.