The oft-circuitous journey of caring for aging parents catches many of us off guard. As our parents enter the challenging stage of old age, we are torn between our desire to help and their need to maintain autonomy and control.
It was this struggle that haunted Martin after his mother Janet's death. Janet had returned home from the hospital with a visiting nurse and a home health aide. After several weeks, Janet was no longer eligible for skilled care at home -- and she rejected Martin's plea to try assisted living. "My mother was a tough old bird. She lived through the depression, was widowed at an early age, survived two bouts of cancer, and seemed indomitable to me as a child." That invincibility was shattered when Janet returned to the hospital with respiratory failure and died. "So, when my wife's father turned 80 last year, we hired a geriatric care manager as a go-to person."
It was a preventative measure, which Martin explains: "My father-in-law is still playing golf, but he lives a plane ride away and we want to be prepared if he can no longer care for himself. I wish I had done that with my mother."
Martin is not alone. According to a 2009 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, more than 65 million people in the U.S. provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aging family member or friend. Making effective decisions about the care of a loved one often takes more time than anticipated and requires an understanding of the complicated long term care system. But a proactive approach can yield better options when the time comes and can head off a family crisis.
Though the caregiving maxim is to "expect the unexpected," here are some steps you can take to prepare more effectively for senior care:
- Have conversations early and often. It is important to understand your parents' preferences as they age. Don't make assumptions about what type of care they may or may not accept. Instead, ask. (Get tips for starting the senior care conversation with a parent)
- Respect your parent's autonomy. Rather than starting off with an admonition (e.g., "You have to..."), it is better to lead with an empathic statement such as, "I am worried about you because...if you continue to live alone, you may fall and break your hip."
- Read up. Learn about the different types of care and payment options. Many caregivers panic when they realize Medicare won't pay for long term care in a nursing home and the average price tag is $75,000 per year. (Learn the difference between Medicare and Medicaid.)
- Start slowly. Resistance is common. Try to introduce support incrementally. For example, introduce a caregiver once a week to clean up or drive a parent to a doctor's appointment. This may allow your parent to gradually adjust to the idea of needing help. (Find a senior caregiver.)
- Seek out expert advice. The assistance of a social worker, geriatric care manager, financial advisor or elder law attorney can go a long way in guiding you through the legal, financial and emotional challenges of caregiving. (Learn more about Care.com Senior Care Planning.)
- Take care of yourself first. As simple as it sounds, many caregivers skip this important step and burn themselves out. You cannot care for others if you neglect your own needs. Neglecting oneself is the quickest way to snapping -- which leads to guilt -- which leads to more neglecting oneself.
Being proactive about caregiving will help you set the stage to just be together as your parents age and require help. Someday, you may be comforted to know that as a result of planning ahead, you were better able to provide the best care possible and wisely navigate the caregiving journey.