First to go is the time, or even the energy and desire, to maintain friendships. Even maintaining friendships that go back years can seem like just one more thing to do when a caregiver is so swamped with demands.
So, caregivers stop seeing friends, hence friends stop asking them to do anything fun. Friends get tired of being turned down. And caregivers forget that life was once fun. They are too busy giving care to everyone else to even notice the loss.
Then there are children at home. I had two young sons when I started going through my two decades of elder care, seven elders total. One of my sons has multiple health issues. I believe I gave my sons as much attention and care as any mother could, but I was always torn. It seemed someone always needed me. A child was sick and an elder’s personal alarm was set off. What should I do? How should I handle it?
Or I’d just be having fun with my sons, and I’d get called away on an emergency. My sons got used to me telling them that we had to stop what we were doing, be it playing music, reading, or doing a craft, because I had to run to Grandma’s and see what’s wrong, since her personal alarm was set off. Or I had to meet the ambulance at the emergency room, because Grandpa fell at the nursing home and broke his arm. Or I needed to reschedule my uncle’s doctor appointment, because he was had gotten the flu.
Certainly, it doesn’t hurt children to know that elders need care, and children need to share their parents with the older generation. Likely, my kids had a little too much of that, but they survived. However, some children have much tougher issues than mine had to face. Some have grandparents with dementia living in their home, verbally or even physically abusing them. Or a single mom and her kids find it more economical to live with the grandparents, but the grandparents end up sucking up all of Mom’s time. The parent – the caregiver to generations – can’t see a way out, so the family stays. But the relationships with the children are damaged.
And then there are the marriages. I hear from many caregivers who have supportive spouses, but I also hear from many who do not. The spouse feels neglected. The spouse never liked the elder, and now that the elder needs a lot of care, the spouse becomes even more resentful. The stress in the marriage can be intolerable for both sides. Marriages can and do break, under the stress of caregiving.
How much do caregivers owe their aging parents? Do they owe their health, their financial future, their family relationships? Where does “honoring your parents” begin and end?
I don’t believe anyone owes their own health, their marriage or their children’s emotional well-being to the elder that raised them. In most cases, the elders, if they could think straight, wouldn’t want that kind of sacrifice made for their benefit. However, often they’ve gotten to a point where they don’t recognize what they are demanding of the caregiver, so they resent not getting every need met and make that resentment well known.
This is where caregivers must take a stand. They must look for outside resources such as their state aging services for some direction. They must learn to balance their love and their time, giving as much care as possible to the elder, yet making sure that they have time, patience and energy for their children, their spouse and even their friends. If they don’t do this early on, breaking the pattern will become harder, though not impossible, as time passes.
Certainly, if the elder’s life is coming to a close, the whole family should gather around in support. But if elder caregiving is a long-term situation, the caregiver should look for balance. She needs to set boundaries as far as the elder care goes. If she does not, all relationships that matter will be damaged, even the relationship with the elder. The caregiver who feels she has given up everything for everyone else will find that no one got what they needed. If the elder care situation sucks the life out of all other relationships, everyone loses.
For over twenty years author, columnist and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Because of this experience, Carol created a portable support group – the book “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Her sites, www.mindingourelders.com and www.mindingoureldersblogs.com include helpful links and agencies. Her newspaper column, “Minding Our Elders,” runs weekly, she speaks at many caregiver workshops and conferences and has been interviewed by national radio, newspapers, and magazines. She is the moderator of the AgingCare.com forum.