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5 unexpected ways life changes when you become a caregiver to your parent

Feb. 19, 2019

I heard about parenting all the time: “Your life completely changes when you become a parent,” my friends would tell me. “You won’t be that into work or parties. You’ll be exhausted and you’ll wear your heart on your sleeve.”

Thanks to my girlfriends, I was as prepared as one can be for motherhood and the responsibility of caring for a new life. But what I never heard about was caregiving for my parents; not a single friend warned me.

If you’re like me, you go about your life working, raising kids, binge-watching shows on Netflix, maybe calling your mother every day, maybe justifying why you don’t. And then, bam! One day, you realize you are not just your parents’ daughter or son, you are also their caregiver. And you realize that life as you once knew it has been completely altered.

To help prepare you for arguably one of the most challenging responsibilities you will have, here are five ways eldercare can change your life. (Spoiler alert: The last one is pretty terrific!)

1. Strangers become your closest friends.  

The life of a caregiver can be pretty lonely. You’re so busy juggling your job, your parents’ needs, often your children’s’ needs and doctor’s appointments (so many doctor’s appointments), that there isn’t a lot of time for socializing. And even if you do find the time for a girl’s night out or golf with friends, who really wants to hear about your father’s advancing dementia? Luckily, there are lots of support groups, both in person and online, where you can get encouragement, understanding and answers to your toughest caregiving questions. I’ll never forget the relief and support I felt after I posted about my stress in an online forum and a complete stranger wrote back, “I know just how you feel.”

“No one can possibly understand the daily conflicts, the emotional, physical and financial toll until they are the caregiver,” says Nicole Solvible, of New Jersey, and a member of an online support group for caregivers. “While having a baby is life-changing, you know the baby will grow up and go to school within a fixed period of time. Conversely, when an elder relative is facing an incurable or long-term health crisis, there is no timeline and it is so hard on all family members involved. Solace comes from those similarly situated.”

Linnea Hoff, from Minneapolis, who is a member of the same group as Solvible, says, “Having support like this group is essential — totally essential!”

2. You finally understand why Oprah is always talking about gratitude.

When my parents were hospitalized at the same time in two different hospitals, I would sometimes grow resentful that my life had been hijacked by not one, but two illnesses. I was worried that my negativity would eventually make me sick, too, so I forced myself to identify one good thing about my life every day. And it helped! Sometimes what was good was simply the fact that I could afford to buy a strong cup of coffee on my way to the hospital. If you train yourself to find something good in every situation, it can buoy you through a challenging day.  

“Be grateful for something — anything, especially during those times when you don't think there's anything to be grateful for,” says Cynthia Lennon Holmes, of Albany, New York. “There always is something no matter how simple or small. In the beginning, I was grateful for my bed even when I had to get out of it too early, got into it too late or left its warmth to get to my mom in the hospital or nursing home. Being grateful gets me through the really, really hard times.”

3. Your cell phone addiction puts a teenager’s to shame.

Before I became a caregiver, I used to judge people who kept their cell phones on tables in restaurants or in meetings. But when my parents got sick, I became that person. I even slept with my phone, fully charged, under my pillow at night. If there was an emergency, I needed to be available.

Amy Henke, of St. Louis, Missouri, knows what I’m talking about.

“Now that I am a primary caregiver to my elderly parent, I no longer feel like I can ever be out of reach. My cell is always on,” she says.

4. Spontaneity is dead.

On our 20th wedding anniversary, my husband prepared a surprise dinner for the two of us — but I never showed up. My father had just moved into a memory care facility, and I was there helping him get acclimated.  

Eldercare is a logistical feat. There is always something more to be done for our parents — whether it’s helping them adjust to new surroundings, running to the pharmacy to pick up a new prescription, calling the insurance company to question a medical bill or driving them to visit other family members. This is no time for surprise parties or unplanned romantic dinners. You can still have fun, you just need to plan in advance.  

“I never thought planning a trip away with my spouse would take so much planning and organizing,” says Kim Kimball, of San Jose, California. “You have to start at least a month in advance to find someone to stay with your parent.”

>> READ: Yes, you can take a vacation — even if you're caring for aging parents. Here’s how.

Barbara Reandeau Rypkema, of Virginia, agrees.

“Something as simple as a drink out before dinner with a spouse loses all the spontaneity,” she says. “Instead, it becomes a major planning process. Honestly, I am a type A planner, but I miss the occasional spontaneous moments that help to overcome the humdrum of everyday life.”

5. Your relationship with your parent breaks open your heart.

I always got along with my mother. Still, we had our share of typical mother-daughter tension. She had her opinions, and I had mine. My opinions could feel like rebukes of her motherly advice, and her opinions sometimes felt judgmental to me. But when she became ill and nearing the end of her life, opinions no longer mattered because trivial things no longer mattered. We just focused on being together and loving each other — and it was beautiful.  

“Taking care of mom in this final stage of her life has enriched my life enormously,” says B.J. Gallagher, of Los Angeles. “The quality of the love I feel for her is deeper than anything I've ever felt in the almost 70 years she's been my mom. I feel tender toward her, and still respectful of her opinions and her right to self-determination. I nurture her, and at the same time I feel nurtured by her. Nobody loves me like my mama does, so the time I spend with her is as much for my own benefit as it is for hers.”

And as our relationships with our parents evolve, it carries through to other relationships in our lives. Merrill Bergenfeld, of New York, says of caregiving, “It opened my heart for more love and compassion.”

Read next: Strategies to help a parent who refuses care

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