There are so many moving parts when it comes to you being a caregiver to an elderly family member. On top of the responsibilities for their own affairs, you have the additional responsibilities of tending to the many different issues surrounding your loved one's care and comfort.
While tending to the needs of the elderly is not new, current demographics of an aging society are utterly unprecedented in human history - at least in terms of the numbers. The massive baby boomer generation has already begun to retire. A shrinking workforce to support them in later years, coupled with a health care system already showing signs of strain are going to add to the pressure.
Because this is a relatively new phenomenon, we as a society are struggling to catch up - as evidenced by the increasing challenges and demands being placed on society's institutions such as Health Care (especially Elder Care), Pensions, and Housing.
Existing programs created and operated by healthcare and other institutional entities have begun struggling with providing effective communication with each other. Too often, there are different departments, agencies or ministries that can be involved in the care of the elderly, which can be problematic in ensuring a seamless, personalized, "hold your hand through the journey" experience.
While each of these entities DO have many, good quality educational pieces and resources surrounding their particular area of expertise - both in print and on-line, there doesn't feel like there’s a coordinated approach to integrate them into a cohesive package; leaving the onus on you the caregiver to search for and become proficient in topics relevant to your particular eldercare situation. A challenging enough prospect, but especially if you are uncertain where to start to who to ask!
So how does this look "on the ground" with some of us baby boomers sandwiched between caring for children and parents? Or, for retirees needing to care for a spouse? How do you juggle the different and often changing responsibilities you have with finding programs best suited for your loved ones’ particular needs, which may or may not be offered in your community?
The not so simple answer, of course is, with dogged persistence; lots of phone calls and leg work to track down the accurate information and timely resources you specifically need, and a lot of anxiety and stress.
One of the biggest stressors in becoming a caregiver to an elderly family member in the first place is usually the sense of total overwhelm in finding yourself in a role for which you’ve typically had no experience nor received training - formal or otherwise .
So often, people are virtually blind-sided when having to take on the role of an elder caregiver to a loved one, and will understandably feel ill-equipped to handle the additional responsibilities.
Caregiver stress comes in many forms. Some are obvious, some are subtle, but either way, it is present if you as a caregiver, and by extension your family, do not have the right kind of resources and supports to assist you throughout – and beyond – your caregiver journey.
Physical Stress Costs
For those of you already caring for elderly loved ones, you know what physical stress feels like. You know that more often than not, your own needs get shunted to the bottom of the list - or get put off the list altogether.
There's a whole host of things that happen to you physically when you are under stress.
The amount and quality of your sleep is one of the first casualties as worry and mentally ticking off the never ending "to do's" keeps you awake, or at the least, has you tossing and turning most of the night, leaving you exhausted and drained in the morning. Not exactly a good starting to point in tending to all your caregiver responsibilities.
It's understandable that now with a lack of sleep on top of your caregiving duties, you physically and mentally don't want to exercise, or at the least, feel there's not enough time with all your other responsibilities. It's probably the last thing you want to do! The very idea makes you tired.
Unfortunately, the lack of regular exercise actually makes you feel more tired as it results in physically decreased flexibility, balance, strength and reflexes. Just as importantly, it reduces your ability to cope with stress - making for a vicious cycle.
Regular exercise throughout the week which includes aerobic, flexibility and strength training activities are critical in keeping you healthy so that you can provide quality care to your loved ones.
With so much demand on your time and attention, eating regular, nutritious meals and snacks can also go by the wayside.
The desire to reach for simple carbohydrates and other "comfort" foods is a well known response to stress, but did you know that a poor diet will only add to the problem? Stress has a negative impact on your ability to properly digest and absorb the nutrients your body and mind need, as well as decreasing your body's ability to neutralize and/or eliminate toxins and other metabolic waste.
A poor diet, along with insufficient sleep and exercise, weaken your immune system; making you more susceptible to illness and decreasing your body's ability to recover from illness or injury.
Ironically, not taking care of your own needs first in your role of caregiver, can eventually put you in a position of ill health to the point you can no longer provide adequate care to your loved ones. By putting your needs last, you are unwittingly jeopardizing the quality of their care!
More healthful food choices are loaded with beneficial nutrients that actually help to calm the mind and relax the body - both also very important to ensure a good night's sleep!
The Costs to Your Mental and Emotional Well Being.
Mental/Emotional Stress Costs
The added and increasingly complex responsibilities of caregiving for elderly family members also takes its toll on your ability to stay focused and clear-headed. Past and current family dynamics, money issues and your own unique manner by which you respond to life's events all contribute to your mental and emotional states.
Did you know that when someone is even mildly stressed, there's a change in brain chemistry, and the front part of your brain known as the Executive brain - responsible for making decisions - actually decreases in its ability to function properly?
If you've experienced constant, significant stress, that resulting sense of complete overwhelm is the symptom as your Executive brain effectively shuts down, making it that much more difficult to make the decisions necessary for yourself and your needs, let alone those of your elderly loved ones.
No one person is an expert in everything. As a caregiver to an elderly family member, it's crucial for you to ask for and receive the information, people and resources to help you create and manage the best possible quality of life - for yourself as well as them.
Relationship Stress Costs
Understandably, lack of sleep and exercise, poor diet and feeling overwhelmed are going to have a negative impact on your relationship with all members of your family.
The challenges in coping with everything is made worse by the fact that there's typically a reversal of roles between yourself and your elders - regardless of whether or not either of you are prepared and/or willing.
After decades of being an independent, responsible adult and parent, your elder is either unwilling to give up the role that has defined them for so long, or through ill-health, can no longer carry out those responsibilities.
It's common for them to feel a sense of loss of independence which can lead to feelings of frustration, sadness and even anger. And since you are the one there caring for them, you can end up bearing the brunt of this.
In your new role of caring for an elderly family member, you may also experience a wide range of feelings. It's not uncommon to go through feelings of frustration and anger yourself, along with fear, guilt and resentment.
The very nature of your relationship has to change, and with it a change in expectations. Boundaries have to be redefined. An elder experiencing a chronic illness or other health challenge will be less able to do the things they once did, and part of your role as their care giver is to understand that.
One of the best ways to manage all this is to get as informed as possible about your elder's health issues. Talk with them and their healthcare providers
Financial/Legal Stress Costs
Taking on the responsibilities of caring for your elderly family member's finances can sometimes be very stressful. On top of managing your own personal financial issues, you may have the added tasks of overseeing their banking, investments, pensions, insurance, property and tax matters that come up - especially in the event that a parent no longer has the mental capacity to manage these issues independently.
You need to spend time figuring out where all the accounts are held, where the appropriate documentation is kept and what the status of everything is. You need to become an accounting-tax-legal auditor of sorts; a task and responsibility possibly made harder if you don't have enough expertise in such areas to allow you to ask the right questions - and get the accurate information you may need in a timely fashion.
You’re basically looking for the amount of money coming in, and the money going out.
Once you've gathered all this information together, you'll need to understand what assets are available as they will influence your decisions on what has to happen going forward to ensure proper care of your elder family member. Any liabilities will need to be addressed as they will also have an impact on the decisions you make.
You'll need to address issues such as; tax credit eligibilities, pension rules, government or other program subsidies, current and future living expense needs (including health care costs), servicing of any debt, etc.
The growing effect of the additional responsibilities and duties required of you in tending to an elderly family member can no doubt have a negative impact on the quality of what you do for a living.
Increased absenteeism obviously results from needing time off to tend to your loved ones. While the reasons are perfectly understandable, from your employer' perspective, absenteeism decreases productivity and therefore, profitability. Job security then becomes a possible issue.
In the case of caregivers needing to travel a long distance to tend to an elderly family member for any period of time, your own family's experience with an absent parent can have negative consequences as well. There's a risk of stress amongst your family members if there's a sense that safety, security and the need to bond are not being addressed- especially with children.
© Nancy Glover | Aging With Grace www.AgingwithGrace.ca
Do you need help with taking care of your elderly?
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Nancy Glover, a healthy aging advocate, mentors extraordinary women and men who have stepped into the challenging role of caring for their elderly spouse or parent by managing their well-being in the later stages of life. Blending first-hand expertise with practical step by step systems to support the needs, goals, and desires of the elderly spouse or parent, Nancy helps caregivers maneuver the complex and often challenging role with supportive advocacy and resources that equally focus on everyone’s well-being. Learn more about her at www.agingwithgrace.ca and sign up to receive timely information and strategies to empower caregivers and families in transition.