If you’re new to caring for an aging parent, it’s normal to lack confidence and feel a little anxious.
“This is the toughest stage of life by far,” notes Paige Arnof-Fenn, a Boston-area marketing executive and family caregiver. But you can make it easier by being honest about emotions (yours and your parents’) and taking advantage of every resource you can, including the sage advice from caregivers who’ve been at it for a while. Real-world eldercare experts can provide actionable advice and insights to help you reduce anxiety and build confidence, and to realize you’re not alone in this.
We asked some experienced caregivers to share the advice they wish they’d had when they started caring for their elderly parents.
1. Understand your parents’ emotions. Aging parents may be anxious or depressed if they lose mobility, cope with multiple chronic conditions or lose their independence. “This can cause them to become overwhelmed, scared or withdrawn,” explains Susan Hodges, a parental caregiver and author of A Breach of Trust. “It’s important to listen and ease their concerns. If you provide tranquility, it will help them to relax and overcome any bad feelings. It’s not about treating them like a child, but treating them as an adult struggling with aging.”
2. Be present, not super-human. “No matter how strong your resume is or how good a problem solver you are in your day job, Arnof-Fenn says, there are some problems that you cannot fix, some things you cannot do. When you have to choose between competing priorities, opt for quality time. “I realized that it was my love and presence that made my family members happy in the end. They knew I was there for them and that’s what mattered.”
3. Keep a daily journal. “Journaling allows the feelings – positive and negative – to leave you so they no longer stay bottled up inside,” explains Lisa Maria Chirico, a nursing home navigator coach and a caregiver in New York. “Even if you only write a few sentences in it, write about your feelings and what you're going through with your loved one. You are able to deal with what's on your mind immediately – no need to wait to call someone on the phone or for the chance to speak during a caregiver support group. When your journey as a caregiver is over, the journal will be very helpful to you because it's a record of your story, you caregiving journey.”
4. Investigate assisted living before it’s needed. Don’t wait to research senior living communities until your parents need it. Do your homework now, while you have time. Even if you decide to live with your aging parents, that situation may need to change. Jennifer Bright Reich, a publisher in Allentown, PA, initially invited her parent to live with her. But after her mother passed, Reich couldn’t provide the full-time care her father needed. A move to assisted living was required. “Remember this might not be just the best decision for you, it’s likely also the best decision for them,” she says. “A few weeks after moving my dad to Above and Beyond Personal Care Home, he thanked me for moving him. ‘They take such good care of me here,’ he said.”
5. Deploy technology. Hodges suggests setting up check-in reminders on your devices and your parents’ to reduce anxiety for you and them. Apps like Lyft and GrubHub make it life easier for everyone. Use a medication dispenser to ensure your parents take the right medications at the right time. “Also ensure they wear [personal emergency] alert gadgets,” Hodges counsels. These devices enable seniors maintain some independence without your worrying about their safety.
6. Take 10 minutes for you. You can easily feel like there isn’t one minute to spare, but you can find a few minutes – on the bus to work, when you’re alone in a parked car, in the doctor’s office waiting room – to ease your stress and give your mind a break. “I wish I was meditating while I was a caregiver – I am now,” Chirico says. “Quieting the mind, even for 10 minutes a day, is very beneficial to overall health and helps one cope with daily life.”
Start with these tips and then reach out to other experienced caregivers for their insights and advice on caring for an aging parent. You can do it!