Getting together for turkey dinner is a time-honoured holiday tradition that many Canadians enjoyed this past October. But family gatherings often remind me of a quote from an Oscar Wilde book, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” The quote is really a testament to the complexity of family relationships. No one can push your buttons like family! But what happens when the dynamic shifts and suddenly you are the caregiver to aging parents? An already complicated relationship can turn combative.
As your parents age, they may start to experience new or worsening health issues as almost 70 per cent of seniors are living with two or more chronic conditions, like heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, and glaucoma. Their mobility may be starting to decline, which can put them at risk for falls and activities of daily living like dressing and bathing are increasingly difficult. Conflicts can arise as your parents resist any help from homecare agencies, fearing it may signal an inability to take care of themselves and a loss of independence.
Consequently, your caregiver role may expand to include everyday tasks like reminding them to take their medication, booking doctor appointments, grocery shopping, or yard work, all the while trying to balance your own work and family commitments. Of course you want to respect Mom or Dad’s wish to live at home for as long as possible, but concerns about them falling or having a medical emergency can keep you awake at night.
And if you add that worry to a full-time job and a family of your own, caregiver stress can take its toll on your own mental and physical well-being, leaving you burnt out and exhausted. If you’ve ever felt frustrated, resentful, or overwhelmed caring for your aging parent, please know that you are not alone. Caregiving is often an emotional journey, filled with rewards and challenges. You may cherish the opportunity to give back to someone who once cared for you, but feel constantly torn between their needs and your own.
Eight million Canadians are currently caring for a loved one and about half of those individuals are caring for their parents or in-laws. Over 65 per cent of caregivers who are married or in common-law relationships reported spending less time with their own spouse as a result of their caregiving responsibilities.
Vicki and her husband Don are caring for his elderly parents,who are still living independently. “Mom is showing some signs of cognitive decline and Dad can’t get around like he used to. We worry about something happening to them,” Vicki explained. They don’t want any outside help from “strangers”, so the caregiving duties rest heavily on Vicki and Don’s shoulders. Vicki often takes time off work to drive them to the doctor and ends up staying for the duration of the appointment to advocate on their behalf.
With the majority of caregivers between the ages of 45 to 64 and still in the workforce, that lost time at work may have a negative financial impact. Transportation is the most frequent type of care provided by caregivers in Canada, according to a Statistics Canada report. Seventy-three percent of people surveyed said they were responsible for transporting their loved one to medical appointments, grocery shopping or running errands. Household chores and providing some kind of personal assistance came in a close second.
Bathing or lack thereof has recently become an issue for Vicki’s mother-in-law, and gently reminding her about it can turn into a struggle. “That’s when you have to pick your battles,” Vicki sighed. “She’s not going to die from not having a bath every day.” And while homecare is an option, they have to be open to the idea of accepting help, which is not always easy. “Mom said she’s been bathing herself for over 70 years and knows how to do it. She feels like she’s losing her independence and that’s really hard.”
So what can you do if caring for your elderly parent is taking an emotional toll on both you and your own relationships? Begin by focusing on the things you can control. You can’t change your mother’s diagnosis for example or make your sister help out more and a feeling of powerlessness can quickly contribute to caregiver burnout. So start by compiling a list of existing resources for you as the caregiver and available supports for Mom and/or Dad.
There’s an excellent booklet published by the Manitoba Government entitled, A Guide for the Caregiver: Information and Resources for Caregivers of Older Adults, which has everything you need to know in one place. The booklet includes information on geriatric assessment programs, senior resource finders, caregiver tax credits, homecare services and how to build a support network for you and your loved one. For a copy of the book, please contact the seniors and healthy aging secretariat at 204-945-6565 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Talk to your own doctor or healthcare provider if you start to experience caregiver stress, which can include symptoms like increased anxiety, feeling tired or run down, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating and cutting back on the things you used to love to do. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Friends and family may not always know what you want or need, so divide up the caregiving tasks wherever possible.
You may also want to talk to Mom or Dad about a personal emergency response service, which can provide immediate access to help day or night, giving you some much needed peace of mind. A help button can be a tough sell for a fiercely independent senior, but it can actually help them age in place safely.
If independent living is their goal, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! A fall or medical emergency can compromise independent living, resulting in a lengthy hospital stay or difficult rehabilitation. Victoria Lifeline offers a no obligation home visit with one of their education facilitators who can sit down with Mom or Dad and have a conversation about why a personal help button is so important. Call 204- 956-6777 to set up an appointment.
Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline, a community service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation.