What to Expect When You Become Your Loved One’s Caregiver

You just left Mom’s house after a trip to the grocery store that has now become a weekly tradition.

While putting the food away, you notice some misplaced items in the cabinets. The countertops are cluttered. A few things you bought on your last trip never made it back into the refrigerator.

As you head back to your car and return to work, you never really leave. You worry. What if she leaves the stove on? What if she falls in the shower? What if I’m not there when she needs me?

Caregiving: The Early Days

You might think of it as just helping Mom here and there, and you’re glad to do it for all the times she helped you.

But here’s a key difference between caring for your child vs. adult: When you care for a child, you know this is temporary and you’re helping your child grow toward greater independence. However, when you begin a care relationship with your parent, you must have the understanding your loved one is moving toward a much more significant level of dependence.

Every day, more than 34 million Americans are adjusting their schedules to fill in the gaps for older loved ones, per a National Alliance for Caregiving report.

Some welcome the new role, and some struggle with the role reversal (especially those with strained parent relationships). And for the sandwich-generation caregivers still raising young children at home, the balancing act can be truly overwhelming.

That’s why even in the earliest stages of caregiving, it’s important to recognize the reality of burnout. Yes, wheelchair-to-bed transfers and midnight emergency room visits are physically exhausting. But the emotional expense of caregiving? Sacrificing your schedule might be manageable, but things like seeing a parent experience memory loss after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, or watching your father wrestle with depression after your mother’s passing is challenging. These transitions are equally draining and contribute to caregiver burnout.

It’s never too early to enlist caregiving help.

Solicit advice, even a professional consultation. Part of being a caregiver means planning ahead. This could help you understand the landscape of senior care; including what solutions might fit you and your loved one — now or in the future.

If you meet with a professional home care provider, you’ll also begin forming a relationship so you have a ready resource when something might happen — a fall, a hospitalization, a diagnosis.

That person might even provide some relief sooner rather than later.

For the parent living alone, a friendly visitor even twice a week can make a life-changing difference. For the caregiver who can’t leave work early on Mondays or Wednesdays to help Mom make dinner, a professional caregiver who can prep, serve and clean — and offer conversation and good company while dining — may be the ideal solution.

In some cases, a parent may be more receptive to professional caregiver than to an adult child for assistance with intimate personal care. Some parents may feel more comfortable talking to a professional about comfort and safety concerns, not wanting to burden their adult child(ren).

Getting to know a professional caregiver or finding the right fit can take time, so the sooner you start, the better. Remember that seeking help in the beginning stages of caregiving is not a sign of failure. In fact, as caregiving progresses, it will be easier to build on a foundation of support, rather than react to a sudden mishap.

Caregiving: Mounting Needs

Depending on your loved one’s diagnosis or health status, the care support you’re providing may look different from day to day, but in most cases, you’ll find yourself doing more as time goes on.

You may start with driving Dad to the doctor and soon find yourself scheduling his appointments, too. Picking up his prescriptions from the pharmacy, then ordering refills. Organizing his meds to make sure he takes the right pills on the right day, and eventually reminding him why he needs them.

These tasks fall under the category of Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs).

Tasks considered ADL are the fundamental basics: bathing, dressing, grooming, eating and using the bathroom. Tasks that fall under IADL are the more complex — yet still necessary — daily tasks, such as balancing a checkbook, scheduling appointments/using the phone, doing laundry and coordinating transportation.

And as caregivers take on more assistance with ADLs/IADLs for a parent or older loved one, the feeling of not being able to do it all — but trying to anyway — can lead to burnout.

Burnout can be when your son or grandson is disappointed because you missed his T-ball game while taking your mother-in-law to physical therapy, you’ll feel disappointed, too. When a work deadline looms and you have zero energy to meet it, the stress compounds. When your siblings refuse to help, frustration and resentment build. These emotions and cycles are normal in caregiving, but over time and if left unchecked will lead to burnout.

Feeling fatigued? Don’t wait for a breaking point, like a health emergency for your parent or when your own health is compromised.

Make a list of all the care to-dos you’re completing and think about how home care can carry some of the weight. Consider twice-a-week support structure on household chores like laundry, light cleaning and food shopping. Consider overnight care so you can sleep at home again without worrying about an overnight fall.

Consider companion care instead of adding an antidepressant to a parent’s already crowded medication regimen or to help relieve you from all that worry, like what if the stove is on or what if Mom falls in the shower.  

The investment is well worth your continued well-being. And it’s always really about your parent’s extended independence and ability to stay at home comfortably and safely. But remember, the better your health, the better (and longer) you’re able to provide care.

Caregiving: Around the Clock

Reality check: Transitioning a parent to full-time, 24/7 support. Making end-of-life preparations and enlisting hospice care. Saying goodbye. Facing grief, loss and what’s next. Caregiving’s final stages are often intense, time-consuming and exhausting —both physically and emotionally. And these final days can follow a year, five years, or a decade-plus of daily grind care.

Will there also be unexpected events in caregiving, even if you have adequate support? Of course. But ultimately, preparedness is the caregiver and loved one’s best friend. Are you prepared with a plan B if something happens to you and you’re not able to provide care for an extended period of time? Are you prepared with backup if the family member who said she’d stay overnight can’t do it because her daughter gets sick?

And how can you prevent and avoid burnout if you don’t know its warning signs? Or if you don’t know how to disconnect yourself from certain caregiving duties because you’ve carried the load alone? Having another person like a professional caregiver who knows your loved one as well as you do can lighten that load.

Imagine having someone who can celebrate the moment your dad recognizes you despite his dementia diagnosis.

Imagine having someone who can come stay with your mom and get the house ready while you bring Dad home from an extended hospital stay.

Imagine being able to say yes to a weekend away with your spouse because you have a caregiver you rely on and trust to check in on your stepdad.

Even if you start the journey with the best of intentions, committed to all until your loved one’s passing — caregiving can be a very long journey worth planning for that can unexpectedly lead to burn you out.

Pace yourself, prepare for the unexpected, prevent burnout and maintain a good relationship with your loved one by asking for help sooner than later. Transitioning to a caregiver before the situation turns dire is a lot easier.
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