Wonderland and the World of Caregiving

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Sherri Snelling reveals four simple steps to prevent stress and burnout when the time comes to care for your aging parents

“Good grief, I’m turning into my mother!” As the boomer generation ages, that concept is an increasingly common reality as more and more of us start to face an unsettling new phase: beecoming a parent to our parents. Welcome to your next stop – wonderland and the world of caregiving.

According to the latest statistics from the National Alliance for Caregiving, more than 65 million Americans provide care to a loved one who has a chronic illness, a physical or mental disability, or is just “aging in place.” Sixty-eight percent of these caregivers are women. In fact, the typical caregiver is a 48-year-old woman caring for her 70-year-old mother.

While women are commonly the nurturers in our society, giving love, care, and support to those around them, they often ignore their own needs when they become caregivers.  Typically a crisis event – whether it’s a diagnosis of cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, a fall which results in a broken hip, or a heart attack requiring hospitalization – thrusts us into this caregiving role. We are unprepared, lack the time or knowledge to perform this role, and often wind up feeling alone as we embark on this caregiving journey.

Yet it’s inevitable that this is a life stage we all will face. Just like in “The Lion King,” caregiving is one epitome of the circle of life. When we’re born, someone, usually Mom, is our caregiver.  As we grow older, we become caregivers to our children and eventually to our older spouse, parents, or other older loved ones. And, ultimately, in the twilight of our lives, someone will care for us (as a single 40-something woman with no children, I’m counting on my two nephews to “man up” when my time comes).

So, Alice, down the rabbit hole you go!  If caregiving is a journey we’ll all be embarking on, then knowing a little bit about where you might be going, how to get there, how much it will cost, and how to “speak” the caregiving language will help us all have safer, saner trips. In other words, let’s take a cue from the Boy Scouts and “Be prepared.”  Here are a few tips on how to plan ahead, which I call the “C-A-R-E” plan:

C = Create a conversation around caregiving. So many caregivers tell me it’s hard to have a conversation with a relatively “well” older parent about long-term care plans (and I’ll admit I have chickened out on a few conversations with my mom, who is still beautiful, healthy, energetic, and definitely at her “age defiance” best). Start with either a personal story or recent news.  Maybe a friend of yours has recently started caring for her father with Parkinson’s, you read an article on elder care, or you were watching last season’s DVD of “Mad Men” wherein Betty Draper faced her father’s memory loss and the need to move him into her home (a rare episode in which Don was actually a hero for a few minutes). This will spark dialogue on a less personal level and allow your parents to give their opinions. Once the conversation gets going, you can start to ask more pertinent, personal questions relating to your family’s plans for long-term care and even end-of-life issues.

A = Acknowledge your loved one’s wishes. There is a great document called “The Five Wishes” from Aging With Dignity, which helps seniors and caregivers start conversations about what should happen as physical and mental capacities fade. What is important is to assure your parents that you want to do what is best for them. By having this conversation now – rather than during a crisis when a sudden illness or other event forces the issue – you will be better equipped to help when the time comes.

R = Review what is already planned. Ask your loved ones if they have long-term care (LTC) policies, legal documentation such as Powers of Attorney or Health Care Directives, or wills already set up. Make sure you know what is covered and – more importantly – what may not be covered. Then find out where these documents exist.

E = Engage the whole family. While you might be the one to take the initiative of beginning the caregiving conversation, especially if you feel you will become the primary caregiver, you’ll want to make sure to include your siblings, your other parent, and even your own spouse and children in the caregiving plan. This helps everyone prepare for their roles, and will ensure that you – as the primary caregiver – do not become burned out or bankrupt when you take on caregiving duties. After all, caregiving must include caring for yourself. By planning ahead, you’ll avoid a lot of stress and strife later.

It’s just a start, but as Confucius said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Bon voyage, caregivers!

Editor’s Note: Sherri Snelling, founder and CEO of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers. She is Chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC), the leading caregiving advocacy nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Sherri has appeared on many news programs, including the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, ABC World Evening News, MSNBC, and CNN, and has been interviewed by the New York Times, USA Today, PARADE, and Prevention, among others.

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