When you think about all the things your parents did for you over the years, you may feel a sense of obligation — but also joy — in being able to return the favor as they age. But caregiving for an aging parent is entirely different from parenting children — and adult children must keep this in mind when their parents need support. Here are the six reasons many adult children, despite their good intentions, are not ready for the responsibility of caring for their aging parents.
1) Role Reversal Doesn’t Work
First, your parent is still your parent — and no matter how dependent Mom becomes as her dementia progresses, maintaining that mother-daughter relationship is critical. When you start treating your parents as children, they may start pushing back, significantly impeding your caregiving efforts. Most aging parents, regardless of their care needs, do not want to be dependent on their children. They don’t want to be a burden. They wish their children didn’t have to help them with personal hygiene, banking, or other daily living activities they once were so capable of doing themselves.
According to a 2016 study from Fidelity Investments, nearly two-in-five families disagree on the roles [adult] children should play as parents age. In the same study, 90 percent of aging parents considered financial dependence on adult children completely unacceptable, while one-in-four adult children stated their commitment to supporting their parents financially.
An awareness of these starkly different views on responsibility is an essential foundation for assessing what caregiving arrangement will be best for all involved. Sometimes, inverting the child-parent relationship is just too big of a hurdle to clear.
2) Unprepared for a Steep Learning Curve
Often families enter the caregiving world by way of an unexpected health event or illness — and many are accordingly unprepared for the role of primary caregiver. According to a 2012 report by the United Hospital Fund and AARP, nearly half of family caregivers in the US were taking on medical and nursing responsibilities, like changing catheters, often without help.
Think about the people caring for Dad during his hospital stay: the nurse who administers his medications, the doctor who prescribes them, the physical therapist who implements his treatment plan to follow upon discharge. There’s also the janitor who cleans the floors, the server who brings his meals three times daily (and prepared in pureed style as he regains swallowing abilities after a stroke), the housekeeper who changes his soiled sheets. Once you decide to take care of your parent, will you truly be ready to meet these needs?
The suddenness of becoming a caregiver is hard enough, not to mention the tough decisions that must be made (and often, immediately after a health event): who will give or remind Dad to take his medication every three hours once he’s home? How will Mom get up and down the stairs after her knee surgery? Add in transportation to doctor’s appointments, coordinating physical therapy schedules, managing and administering medications, laundry, bills, meals, and more? It’s often just unrealistic for one person to assume these responsibilities alone.
3) Difficult Family Dynamics
Family dynamics can become quite heated when members disagree about caregiving decisions, and some families experience rifts and broken relationships because of it. In fact, an Alzheimer’s Association-commissioned survey said 61 percent of siblings “felt they didn’t get the support they needed from their brothers and sisters and it strained their relationship.”
Maybe you aren't the oldest sibling, but you've lived closest to your parents for the longest. Or perhaps you're the only child and have always been the responsible one. In some families, there are already strained relationships between parents, children, or siblings before caregiving even starts. Add stepparents, in-laws, and blended families to the mix as well, and the question of who’s going to care for Mom can become a volatile one. Are you ready for the conflict?
4) Lack of Back-Up
The reality of caregiving? It’s unpredictable. What if Dad has a fall while you’re at work? Who will make sure he doesn’t try to get up and injure himself further before the ambulance arrives?
If Mom wanders outside at night, (and the Alzheimer’s Association suggests six in 10 people with Alzheimer’s or dementia will wander at some point), who will make sure she finds her way safely home again?
Many adult children have their own family. What happens when situations arise among your own household?
What happens if you need surgery and won’t be able to help Mom for several weeks during your recovery?
Even if you’re able to manage the day-to-day responsibilities, you need a backup plan — because when you’re playing the role of family caregiver, you cannot also administer “Plan B.” Caregiving takes a village, and establishing a safety net early on is vital.
5) Caregiver Burnout is Real
Make no mistake: there is nothing easy about becoming your parent’s caregiver. Even if you have the best intentions, eventually burnout sets in without a strong support system. Your kids and spouse miss you at dinners, evening school events and monthly date nights. You can’t keep up with your household chores and Mom’s, with your own grocery shopping, meal planning and preparation on top of your parent’s. You haven’t slept through the night since Mom’s stroke, and you’re making mistakes at work because of it.
Per data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), sandwich generation caregivers [those caring for parents and children simultaneously] spend about 1,350 hours a year helping their aging parents and children, and about 75 percent of these caregivers are also employed outside the home.
Keeping Mom safe — and her needs met — is a full-time job, but if you’re also trying to do the full-time jobs of managing your own household and balancing a career and children, you will reach a point of burnout. The weight of this responsibility can affect your physical health too.
The reality is, burnout can turn dangerous for both you and your loved one. Click here to read more about burnout and how to mitigate it.
6) Time You Just Don’t Have
In some cases, an aging parent will require around-the-clock care. If this is the case for your parent, you need to seriously consider how you could manage this level of care and commitment, especially if you have a job and a family at home. A professional caregiver who is knowledgeable, compassionate, and trained to meet a variety of older adult’s specific care needs is your best partner for these situations — and even for day-to-day care needs that may not require 24/7 attention.
Get to know all the ways a professional caregiver can fill the gaps when you can’t be there, when you need a break, or when you’re still learning the best ways to meet a parent’s needs with dignity, respect, and love.