Preparing to Care for an Aging Parent

Rick Lauber

Preparing to Care for an Aging Parent

Rick Lauber

The United States is getting older. Population numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau report that the number of American seniors now exceeds 54 million. With more seniors, more family members are being called upon to become caregivers and help at some level. (The National Alliance for Caregiving reports that one in five Americans have assumed this role.) Baby boomers are increasing this ratio resulting in an increased certainty that family members may care or help care for an aging parent, friend, or spouse/partner.

Family members are often caught unaware when a loved one’s health begins to decline. Reasons for this can vary. Potential caregivers may not have experience with open family discussions; be embarrassed to ask for help; or prefer not to think about unpleasant topics (e.g., aging, sickness, and death). I once thought that both my own parents were the pictures of good health. While true at one time my mother and father both aged, and I saw their physical and mental health slide.

Illness and declines in health, particularly those that may require complete medical care, can be hard for both seniors and family caregivers to accept. Parents may realize that they are losing their prized independence and need to entrust much of that control to their children. Giving up the car keys and otherwise sacrificing some or all decision-making may be considered a weakness. Family caregivers must take on new responsibilities while balancing their own lives, careers, families, and outside interests/obligations all while watching a parents mental and physical health weaken. Proactive, not reactive, planning can make the process easier for all parties. If you are new to caregiving or simply interested in knowing what to expect, consider the following.

Explore your family’s medical history.

Is there cancer or heart disease in your family’s past? Hereditary ailments may strike again. Learn about the specific condition, and ask your family doctor what to expect. Search the Internet. (Be wary of the source of information – when was the information posted? Has the posted information been updated – and when? What are the writer’s credentials?) Read subject-specific books.

Prepare yourself emotionally.

Caregiving can contribute to a wide-range of predictable and unpredictable emotions. When my father was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, there were days I laughed, cried, felt frustrated, and didn’t know what to feel. It can sometimes feel like there is nothing to do but stand by and helplessly watch. With no cure for my father’s health condition, I concentrated instead on advocating for him and keeping him as safe and comfortable as possible. Losing a loved one – or even imagining losing this special person – slowly or suddenly can be immensely challenging and rightly so: This is someone you care for deeply.

Read more: Learn how to advocate for the person you care for.

Create a support circle.

Caregiving is not a job that should be done independently nor out of obligation. Focus on building a strong support circle of people you know and trust the most. You can also reach out to your loved one’s doctor, condition-specific health organizations, professional caregiving companies, local senior’s transportation providers, and so on for additional support. These resources (and many others) can provide information, a helping hand when needed, and respite when you require a break. Admitting that you may need caregiving help and accepting that help are not signs of personal weakness.

Read the will.

Your loved one may already have thought through some of their more difficult care and financial decisions. While acting on these requests can become intense and emotional, try to find comfort in the fact that you do not have to decide what’s best for them if/when they are no longer able to make these decisions. Having set directions to take greatly reduces the anxiety and potential squabbling between family members who are trying to determine what may be most appropriate and what a parent would want. Remember that a will may need to be updated to account for a new spouse/partner, children, or belongings/collections. Revisit the will with your loved one periodically, and make sure things are correct.

Read more: One of our bloggers shares her approach to end-of-life conversations with her parents.

Caregiving can be a difficult ride. There are new time demands, different skills to learn, and responsibilities to manage. This role can affect you physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. Thinking – and acting – ahead will greatly reduce your anxiety and help you best prepare for any future challenges.

Read more: All this about preparing for your loved one’s care may have you wondering how to prepare for your own future needs.

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