November “Senior Sense” - Navigating the Caregiving Frontier: 6 Steps to Accepting Your New Normal
By Jody Gastfriend, LICSW, VP of Senior Care and "Senior Care Conversations" Blog contributor
Imagine a GPS that guides you easily along a road for hundreds of miles, then suddenly the voice command blurts out, “Turn left...No turn right! Make a U-turn. Stop! Go!” You’d feel pretty frazzled, right? Well, that’s what caregiving is often like, particularly for those who are caught off guard. In fact, unexpected twists and turns are part of the journey. It’s just a matter of recognizing your “new normal” as a family caregiver. The first step is spotting signs that your parent’s health may be declining, then putting a care plan in place. For this article, we’re going to focus on the acceptance of your new life—the new “normal.”
I remember when my dad turned 86. He had been doing quite well in the nursing home where he’s lived for four years. His dementia wasn’t getting any worse and his mood was mostly cheerful and content. Then right around his birthday, I got a call that Dad was in the hospital following chest pains. My husband, three children, and I dropped everything and made the two-hour trip to Western Massachusetts, where Dad was in intensive care. He had just “ruled in for an MI.” In other words, he had a heart attack.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind of good and bad news (mostly bad). Initially, Dad’s health improved and he was discharged back to the nursing home. Less than a week later, he was readmitted for nausea and vomiting. Then my mom got the flu. Then Dad’s medications somehow got mixed up and he didn’t get his new heart medicine. Then his blood pressure shot up. Days later, it stabilized but the blood thinner levels were off. And so it went.
We’ve been down this road before, as have many other seniors’ children and grandchildren. If you’re going through something like this, you’re not alone. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about coping with the new normal of caregiving:
- Expect the Unexpected: Just when you think you know the prognosis, the routine, the choices—something you couldn’t have anticipated happens. Find ways to respond and keep moving.
- Never Say Never: Don’t promise Mom that you will never put her in a nursing home. It may be the safest and best option one day.
- It’s OK and “Normal” to Get Angry and Frustrated: You need to find a safe outlet to express negative, pent-up feelings. Talk to a friend, join a support group, or get professional help.
- Get on the Same Page With Your Siblings: Forget that your sister’s college tuition was paid by Mom and Dad, while you were saddled with student loans. Focus on how to plan for Dad’s care. Let go of the old hurts (or put them in a box for another time if you can’t totally let go).
- Communicate With Your Children: In an age-appropriate way, tell them what’s happening with Grandma or Grandpa. Let them know that you need their understanding, and find ways to include them in the caregiving responsibilities.
- Put Yourself on the “To Do” List: Don’t ignore your body’s messages. Headaches, insomnia, bitchiness, weight gain (or loss) can be subtle messages that it is time to take better care of your own needs.
During the time your loved one does require your care and intervention, it’s important to stay grounded in the present. This means staying positive. And I know that can seem unfathomable at times. You will have “moments,” we all do. But afterwards, take another “moment” to try to learn something about why this particular experience became so frustrating, stressful, or overwhelming—and change your mindset for the next time around. The most frustrating thing about this journey (and it is a journey) is that you can’t do anything about your parent’s aging process; you can only change your approach.
So, whether you are currently a caregiver or are just starting out, the first step is to truly feel that this state of caregiving is an opportunity, and not a burden. Yes, you might be remote. Yes, you should hire helpers and call in reinforcements (e.g., housekeepers, transportation help, food prep, safety monitors, in-home care, sibling, and neighborly assistance). And you should be giving yourself “respite” breaks as often as possible, so that your life and your job remain in balance as much as possible.
So, what’s the opportunity? Find the joy. It might even help you see life in a whole new way.
For support, contact a Senior Care Advisor at Care.com. We are master’s-level social workers specializing in adult and senior care.
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