Darlene Nestor is on-call at all times. She isn’t a firefighter but the care and service she provides is just as important. Nestor, is an administrative assist for Fairfax County Fire and Rescue in Fairfax, Virginia. She is one of a large number of baby boomers who are parenting their parents. Her 90 year old mother, Marjorie, suffered a stroke about 9 years ago which leaves her mentally unable to care for herself. Her father, Warren, is 86. While he lives independently, his reluctance to accept help and his determination to be independent in spite of risks continue to place a great deal of stress on Nestor and her family. “Every time the phone rings I dread that the call will bring bad news about Mom or Dad,” says an exasperated Nestor. The fear can be seen in her face, the emotional exhaustion can be heard in her voice.
It is estimated that 80% of all care received by older Americans is provided by family members. The 85-and-older population is expected to more than triple between now and 2050 in the United States. Half of those older than 85 need weekly help. Thirty-five percent of working people also care for parents 35 or more hours per week. These staggering statistics show the growing need for elderly home care skills and the growing challenges of having to make some critical decisions for you and your senior loved ones. Elder care can be as simple as combing your aging mother’s hair, to something as complex as having to make decisions about rehabilitative therapies, choosing a doctor, or dealing with resistance from your loved one.
There is a complex and subtle shift in power as parents grow older. One day we find ourselves doing for them what they did for us. We drive them to doctor’s appointments, keep track of their eating habits, and make decisions based on their best interests. With that wave of responsibility can come feelings of fear, being overwhelmed and, at times, unprepared. “My sisters and I share the care of our mother,” says Nestor. “Mom is incontinent and needs us to dress her and prepare meals. Dad was one of the strongest and healthiest men I’ve ever known. It has been so difficult to watch him become so fragile.”
If you have siblings, Nestor prefers a team approach to include:
- Developing a plan that will establish responsibilities
- Sharing and seeking information
- Keeping everyone informed including discussions about money and legal matters
- Involving the elderly parent as much as you can. It gives them some sense of power in a world where they are wrestling with a loss of power
When choosing a physician, select a geriatrician. This is a doctor who specializes in the care of the elderly. Also, you should understand how your elder views the doctor-patient relationship. Does your senior loved one see the doctor as an unapproachable authority or will your mom or dad ask some important questions? Look for a doctor who is a good communicator and shows a willingness to understand the elder’s time period. Most of all, select a physician who sees the elder as a person, not a set of symptoms. Finally, I recommend that an Advance Directive be signed. This is a legal document that conveys one’s decisions about end-of-life care.
When encountering resistance from your senior try to understand why they are saying “no” to something. Seek the aid of another elderly person who might persuade your loved one to be open to changes or might explain your loved one’s recalcitrance.
Things you will want to avoid:
- Don’t judge them
- Don’t give unsolicited advice
- Don’t believe that you can solve all their problems
- Don’t tell them you know how they feel. This can breed anger and resentment
While this can be a challenging time, it can also be a rewarding time. A senior can bring the gifts of wisdom, love, and experience to a household. It can be an opportunity to take a relationship to a sudden and unexpected stage of growth. “I have no regrets as a daughter caring for my elderly parents- I feel very fortunate that my parents are still living and I have the opportunity to make such decisions,” says Nestor. Nestor’s love, patience, and understanding are on-call 24 hours a day and she wouldn’t have it any other way.