For a growing number of working adults, caring for a parent is a life-altering juggling act that can jeopardize their own health, finances and jobs. But it is possible to balance it all. Here’s how.
By Greg Carannante
When my sister was 15, Mom did the unthinkable: She read my sister’s diary. Mary was visiting me, her only sibling, 14 years older and 1,000 miles from home. Depending on whose story you believe, Mom was either cleaning her daughter’s “messy” dresser – or rummaging through it for whatever privacy to invade. When Mary returned home to Delray Beach, she found a teenager’s nightmare come true. It was the first atom bomb of her young life.
I’ve thought of this often recently – perhaps because the irony of it is inescapable as Mary now finds herself thrust into every minute detail of our mother’s life. She is not reading Mom’s diary, she is writing it.
At 51, my sister is herself leading a double life. By day, she is director of development for a Catholic high school in Palm Beach County, charged with raising funds to keep the school going. And by day and night, she has taken on the responsibility of keeping our 88-year-old mother going.
Mom was a real knockout back in the day. She always took care of herself. She can’t anymore, though, and as her deteriorating health deepens her dependency on my sister, it has come to this: The child is mother to the woman.
My sister’s situation is not uncommon. More than one in five workers aged 45 to 64 is a caregiver – typically for a parent – according to the AARP. And a 2011 MetLife Study of Caregiving Costs to Working Caregivers shows the proportion of adult children providing personal care and/or financial assistance to a parent more than tripled over the preceding 15 years. That’s a quarter of adult children – mainly Baby Boomers – and it’s estimated to cost the average parent caregiver over 50 a total of $303,880 in lost wages, pensions and benefits. If it were provided by paid workers, the bill for such care would total about $42,000 a year.
Following her stroke 11 years ago, Mom stayed at Mary’s home for several months before searching for an assisted living facility. South Florida’s famously large population of senior citizens may have provided them a distinct advantage in finding the right place.
“Assisted living facilities and nursing homes are less expensive here. Not only that, but there are a lot more to choose from,” says Doris Hass, geriatric care manager and owner of Atlas Care Management in Fort Lauderdale. “We have a lot of different types of senior living you don’t find everywhere in the country. It depends on what people can afford.”
After Mary helped our mother move into a nearby assisted-living residence, Mom mostly had her life to herself until about a year ago. But now, it’s Mary who is providing much of the assisted living: helping Mom with showers, taking her to doctor appointments, answering confused calls in the middle of the night – not to mention dealing with inevitable complaints and frequent monitoring of the facility’s increasing care.
“It may be exhausting and emotional but being there for her isn’t a job – it’s what I want to do because not only was I her miracle baby, she is my miracle mom,” Mary says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
My sister’s employer might not share her sentiments if it were affecting her performance. She’s managed to avoid that with a flexible schedule that lets her make up for “Mom time” by working during personal time – often until 2 or 3 a.m. Others are not so lucky.
“There’s a much higher absenteeism among caregivers,” Hass says. “They’re losing a lot of time from work. When they’re at work, they’re making phone calls to make arrangements, calling doctors – so they’re also taking time away from work when they’re at work.”
“Be realistic about what you can and can’t do,” says Amy Goyer, AARP home and family expert and author of the free e-book Juggling Work and Caregiving (aarp.org/caregivingbook). “I advise working caregivers to consider speaking with employers and being up front that they are very committed to their work. Discuss flexible work options that are available. Avoid doing caregiving tasks on work time, unless your supervisor has approved it. This is a tricky issue because so many need to be done during normal working hours.
“It’s very important that working caregivers evaluate their own life, including work responsibilities, and make a conscious effort to maintain balance. We, as working caregivers, are literally juggling everything. If we get too overwhelmed, something is bound to drop.”
Too often what drops is the well-being of the caregivers. Choosing between taking care of themselves and their parents is a real-life balancing act. “They’re under a lot of stress,” Hass says, “so they start having medical problems and they don’t take care of themselves.”
The MetLife study found that working adult children over age 50 who provide care to a parent are more likely to have fair or poor health than non-caregivers – and the constant stress with its increased health risk and depression can take 10 years off a caregiver’s life.
“You’re not going to be any good to your parent if you’re depressed, anxious, exhausted and sick – and caregivers do tend to get sick more than other people,” says Virginia Morris, author of How to Care for Aging Parents (see interview, page 58.) “Even when you’re not actually caring for your parent, you’re worrying about your parent, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and you know it’s going to fall on your shoulders. I’m not sure people even realize how stressful that is until it’s over. I would say this is the No. 1 issue caregivers face.”
How to defuse caregiver burnout? Says Kathy Franzone, a geriatric care manager who literally took her work home when she brought her 83-year-old father with mixed dementia into her Cooper City home: “I regularly exercise, I like getting massages, I do acupuncture. Those are all self-help things just to help reduce my stress level, so that I can cope. Sometimes that’s hard because when you have a lot of demands you put yourself last.”
One major cause of stress is the cost, which statistics put at over $200 billion annually to U.S. caregivers, so financial planning is key.
“I always recommend visiting a board-certified elder law attorney earlier rather than later,” Hass says. “Sometimes an attorney knows about Medicaid and long-term planning and can help preserve assets. They’re going to make sure there’s a living will in place, a healthcare surrogate and a power of attorney. These are very important for people to have.”
The Area Agency on Aging is also valuable, she says, because its social workers help locate government programs for financial or other assistance. For veterans, Hass advises sidestepping the VA and seeking out a veteran’s services officer or a VA accredited agent to determine eligibility for assistance.
“Don’t just call the VA, because who knows who you’re going to get on the phone,” she says. “There’s assistance there that people don’t normally know about.”
Of course, even the best planning can’t head-off family problems.
“This is very common,” says Hass, also a state-certified mediator. “The types of things we can mediate are when families are disagreeing on decision-making. Or it could be Suzie is taking care of mom and nobody else is helping and now she’s getting burned out. You can seek out an eldercare mediator. It does not have to be a legal issue.”
What if the problematic family member happens to be the parent?
“I often advise caregivers to stop and think about how they would feel if right now – today – their situation changed and they needed the kind of support their loved ones are needing,” says the AARP’s Goyer. “Most of us would resist changes such as stopping driving, having someone come into our home and get involved in our very personal care. It’s no different for our loved ones – age doesn’t change that. Approach them with love and always explain that your goal is to help them be as independent as possible for as long as possible.”
4 COMMANDMENTS OF CAREGIVING
… According to geriatric care manager Doris Hass:
1. Take care of yourself.
2. Seek out help (i.e., a home health agency or social worker).
3. Seek out funds to help pay for assistance.
4. Seek out support groups (many are online and disease-specific).