7 Lessons Learned While Caring for My Parents

designThe other day I was talking to a woman who is trying to run a business while caring for her ailing mother. “It sounds like you’ve had some experience with sick, elderly parents,” she said. Indeed. I told her about the summer when both of my parents got sick and were diagnosed with terminal illnesses on the same day. I told her how I had to take time off from work, even though I am the breadwinner. I told her how I felt like I abandoned my children for months while I figured out my parents’ situations. I told her how things finally settled down and that even though I am still a caregiver, my situation is much more manageable – right now. “What did you learn?” she asked me. Great question.

In no particular order, here are the lessons I learned while caring for my elderly parents:

  1. Invest in the right services. When my parents both got sick, they had to leave their homes and move to two different facilities. I had some sense of their finances because my husband had been handling their bills for a while. But I did not have a clear picture of just how much money they did or did not have and therefore where they could afford to live and for how long. As a result, I was very nervous about spending any money – theirs and mine. But when a friend referred me to an eldercare attorney, I paid his fee, despite what felt like a big price tag. It was money well spent. He was able to sort out my parents’ financial situation more quickly than I could, and counsel me on how best to spend and protect their assets. He was also able to help me file for benefits that I would never have known about without him.
  2. Don’t procrastinate. I am excellent at procrastinating. A real pro. But when it comes to caregiving, you have to tackle things as they come up. Because the thing about caregiving is that it is wildly unpredictable. You cannot plan when someone will get sick or fall, or mess up the remote control or accidentally disconnect their phone and need you to come over. And if you’re juggling caregiving with anything else – like your own life or career, you can’t count on having time tomorrow to get something important done. It may feel restrictive not to have any goof-off time, but actually staying on top of tasks frees you up for quality downtime. True relaxation stems from knowing you’re doing your best.
  3. Prepare to miss work. If you’re at the point in caregiving where you need lots of flexibility at work, create a system to ensure the work still gets done. You could ask your boss for a buddy at work who can back you up when you’re out. You can keep a list of open items, passwords and other pertinent information on the server so that your coworkers can take over your assignments. You can suggest a flex schedule so you can work around your caregiving schedule. Whatever you do, make a plan. Caregiving is disruptive to your career. It’s your job to minimize those disruptions.  Caregiving is disruptive to your career. It’s your job to minimize those disruptions.… Click To Tweet
  4. Pace yourself. When you are in the throes of caregiving, you may not have time in your life for much else. It can be incredibly frustrating to defer a dream – especially for a role you probably never imagined or wanted. And you may feel hopeless, like life as you knew it is over. I remember thinking that by the time I was done being a caregiver, I would need a caregiver. Try to be forgiving of yourself and your situation. All you need to do is stay in the game; you don’t need to win it. You will come through the process and new opportunities will present themselves. For example, I have met at least 10 women in the last year who have started new companies and careers as a result of their caregiving experiences. New opportunities will present themselves.
  5. Learn to ask for help. If you have issues with asking for help, this is the time to get over it. Keep this in mind: people want to be useful. By allowing them to help you, you are actually giving them a gift. Helping, in even the littlest way, gives people a sense of control and that can be comforting. Keep the following things with you at all times: a list of things you need, Post It notes, thank you cards and stamps. Whenever someone asks, “How can I help,” choose an item from the list, note their name next to it, give them their assignment on a Post It, and send them a thank you when you have some downtime.
  6. Remember doctors are your allies, not your friends. Yes, you want to partner with your parents’ medical team and ideally create a strong working relationship with them, but your job is not to make friends with them. Your job is to be an advocate for your parents. That means it will be appropriate at times to question the care team and to be assertive in seeking answers and attention.
  7. Accept people’s strengths and weaknesses. If you are trying to manage your parents’ needs with the help of your siblings, or other relatives and friends, play to their strengths and move past their weaknesses. Now is not the time to try to “fix” your younger brother. If his organizational skills are nonexistent, do not ask him to coordinate the care team or organize the move to assisted living. You will just be disappointed. Give him something else to do.

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18 comments on “7 Lessons Learned While Caring for My Parents”

  1. Kara Reply

    Great list! I won’t even get started on #3 and the long overdue need for a national conversation on flex time.
    I might add one thing. If you are lucky enough to have a spouse , and particularly if you have kids still at home, have an honest conversation with them up front. Care-giving will be a strain on your relationship at some point. Letting them know it’s not them, that you will need to vent, and especially to establish a way for them to say they need your attention at a particular moment is crucial. They need to know how to get your attention when the really need it even though you are often pre-occupied with the duties of care-giving. One day your duties in care-giving will be over, and you will want them there!

    • admin Reply

      Great addition to the conversation Kara! Caregiving put such a strain on my marriage. It turns out all he wanted was to be included in the process. All I wanted was for him not to complain about it but he needed to vent too because my choices and role were affecting him.

      • Sarah Reply

        YES!! This should be number 8. My husband had always said of course we will take care of your Mom if something happens. But neither of us knew what that really meant. The strain on our marriage has been the most difficult part of this. Kid care can cause conflicts in a marriage for sure, but loss of marital attention from a child which you both have an equal investment and connection to is one thing. Loss of marital time and attention from a parent who is not yours, and who you may have not had an easy relationship with anyway, is very different and hard not to resent. Then you add in the dynamics of the rest of the family trying to help but not really being there to do anything meaningful on a day to day basis and I can say NOTHING about this difficult job has been more challenging in the long term after the initial crisis that got us here had passed.

        • admin Reply

          I hear you Sarah! You said something that is so true: we tell our spouses we will of course take care of their parents, but we don’t really know what that means. You can’t until you actually do it.

  2. Andrea B. Reply

    Great information. Important to anyone who is in the stage of life where their parents are reliant on them for care. You’ve laid out some great tips.

  3. Alana Reply

    In a way I feel so fortunate – it’s only one elderly person (my mother in law, although there is also a developmentally disabled brother in our mix) and our son is grown and flown the next – still, we feel so lost sometimes. Thank you! This helps tremendously.

    • admin Reply

      Thanks for your comment Alana – the goal is to help so it’s great to hear. Whether you have one person to care for or more, the process can be so stressful depending on the other circumstances in your life. It’s everchanging.

  4. Danits Reply

    This is a great list!! I think the order is practical for most caregivers! I am caregiver of my husband and mother! It’s very hard! Actually, I ended up being fortunate enough to be able to retire! Their sicknesses caused me to miss work a lot which caused me to be frowned upon! However, there are jobs where people are more understanding!

    • admin Reply

      Hi Danits, sounds like you have your hands full! Is there anything you would add to the list?

  5. It's my calling Reply

    Thanks for sharing. I too have two people I’m caring for. My mother and her mother. My mother has been with me for 6yrs. And my grandmother for eleven yrs. On top of that I’m not 100% myself but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, it’s been difficult at times. But the love and support I received from my two Lil men (17 &14) breathes strength in me everyday. I believe in scheduling everything. Since both my boys are teenagers it’s important to make sure they come first. Even though my daily schedule is over run with mom and grandma. I make sure I can make every event (as long as its on the calendar i can do it.)and when I can’t I have serious detail conversation on a regular basis to make sure their feelings are taken seriously. So, I would say adding a detail schedule and regular family meetings to make sure I’m meeting the needs of those who are most important (MY BOYS) definitely helps me. Last thing, I sleep, rest when my mother and grandmother do. And I pencil in time for myself so that I can be everything to everyone else. I have to feed my soul in order to do what I do for others.
    It’s my calling….
    Thx again for sharing ur 7 lessons

    • admin Reply

      Thanks for the note Tracey. You certainly have earned your experience! I love the idea of family meetings – what a great way to balance family needs when you are living in the sandwich.

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