Published October 5, 2012, Pawtucket Times
Being a caregiver to an older parent while raising children has now become the new rite of passage for aging baby boomers who, by the millions, are moving into their middle age years and beyond. Often called the sandwich generation for having care responsibilities at both ends of the age spectrum, these individuals become emotionally challenged, physically drained in their attempts to cope and juggle a multitude of tasks.
According to National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, more than 65 million persons, 29% of the nation’s population, provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, older family member or relative during any given year. The caregiver spends an average of 20 hours per week providing care for their loved ones.
Taking on New Care giving Responsibilities
Over seven years ago, Catherine Taylor, 51, the State’s Director of the Department of Elderly Affairs, and her husband, Rob, a practicing attorney, found themselves thrust into this new very demanding role with huge responsibilities. Like many others, the couple took on the demanding role of being caregivers of an elderly parent while juggling the intense domestic demands of taking care of four children, whose ages ranged from 3 years old to age 15.
The Providence couple was now sharing the care of a very independent 83-year-old widow, who at that time resided in her home in Connecticut, one that she had designed. The older woman still continued to practice as an architect until her health began to rapidly steep decline.
In 1995, “We moved her back to Rhode Island six months before she died when she became too infirm to live independently in her home,” remembered Catherine.
Catherine wanted her mother-in-law to move in with her family, “but she was just too independent for that,” she said. Her husband’s mother would ultimately choose to live out her final days in an apartment at a senior living facility on Providence’s Eastside, near the Taylor’s home.
As is the case with many caregivers who relocated their loved ones to live close by, packing, scheduling the move, and getting the Connecticut house ready for sale became the first chore of being a caregiver, notes Catherine.
According to Catherine, becoming a caregiver while working and raising a large family was incredibly hectic. “Many times we had to be in two or three places at one time,” each day. Catherine adjusted her work schedule to help her mother-in-law with activities of daily living such as dressing, assisting in going to the bathroom, and feeding, take her to the emergency room or stay with her in the hospital, while wanting to be at home cooking her family dinner, and helping her children do their homework.
Tips on Coping for Caregivers
The couple juggled their roles as parents, caregivers and employees as best they could. For instance, “our oldest child would be charged with watching his younger siblings”, Catherine says. When visiting her mother-in-law to cook and assist her with eating, Catherine brought the youngest along to the senior living facility, and placed him in a portable playpen next to the kitchen table. Catherine, her husband and his sister, would divvy up cooking chores, each one take responsibility for making either breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Supplemental care, provided by a home health aide, was especially needed when the aging baby boomer couple had to be at work.
While taxing for the entire family, care giving did have a positive impact on Catherine’s children. “It really impressed on them how our family pulled together,” she said, noting “that it made them feel useful because they had specific jobs to perform to keep the family running.”
When asked if she got enough respite care for herself, Catherine quipped, “I never get enough!” She added, “For us being part of a large nuclear family, also having a large extended family, we were able to trade off with each other. But a lot of people don’t have that option,” she notes. One of the hardest things about being a primary caregiver is how alone you can feel, Catherine said. “You’re living a different life from most other people. You watch other families make snap decisions to go to the movies, and just hop in their car and go. For you to do the same thing, the logistics tend to be like the invasion of Normandy. You just have to go through so much organizing to have simple pleasures that other people don’t think twice about”.
“Most family caregivers look like they are doing fine and think they are doing fine, but family, friends and neighbors, and sometimes community agencies, need to check in and give them a break so they care recharge their batteries.”
Catherine suggests that caregivers maintain their relationships with friends and colleagues as hard as that is to do so they will look in on you, stop by for coffee, bring you dinner and help recharge you. “This will allow you to keep doing your care giving job with love.”
Double Duty as a Caregiver
Sixty-four-year-old, Kathy Heren, Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman, a licensed practical nurse and caregiver, and her husband, John, 63, a chef, slipped into the care giving in the mid-1990s, watching out for two elder family members at the same time, a 72-year- old mother and her 78-year-old uncle.
Both frail relatives (one had dementia and the other a heart condition) lived independently in their homes located in East Providence and on the Eastside. “Being Irish, they were both very stubborn in accepting assistance,” the aging advocate remembered. While professionally helping others cope with care giving and long-term care issues, Rhode Island’s Ombudsman had to carve out time to personally perform chores for her two frail family members. Chores included shopping, paying bills, and cleaning their houses. Scheduling and transportation to doctor appointments and med management took additional time away from her very demanding job and family duties.
When dealing with her Mother’s finances became just too difficult, Kathy, along with her sister, filed for guardianship. “If you realize that there are some things you just can’t control, then seek outside services or assistance,” she recommended.
“Depending on personality of the person you are taking care of you may have to just step away from being a caregiver, if it impacts on your health,” she says. “It may become the right time to turn to a nursing home or home care services, to take care of your frail family member.”
“Make sure you turn to respite care if needed because it is always available”, Kathy suggests. “You need to know when to seek out this assistance and go on a trip to recharge your batteries. When taking care of your loved one, do not forget your own health, family, or nutrition,” she says. .
Seeking Respite Care Programs
Rhode Island will receive $250,000 under the federal Lifespan Respite Care Act to support families caring for aging or disabled individuals with special needs, increasing access to short-term, or respite care. This relief offers family members temporary breaks from the daily routine and stress of providing care to loved ones with special needs.
You can get information about respite care programs and resources available to care givers by calling by calling the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, Division of Elderly Affairs at (401) 462-3000, or you can go to www.dea.ri.gov. TTY users can call (401) 462-0740.
The Rhode Island State Ombudsman, at the Alliance for Better Long-Term Care, monitors the quality of the Rhode Island’s nursing homes, assisted living facilities, home health agencies and hospice services, and address issues of elder abuse, guardianship, neglect and financial exploitation. For more information, call (401)785-3340.
Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.