Being a family caregiver is a lot like training for a race. Make no mistake here; Betsy and I are not runners, but we both know that how you train depends on what kind of race you are planning to run. If you want to run in a 5k, you can be ready in a matter of weeks, but if you’re going to run in a marathon, you will need to prepare over a much more extended period. And if you are already a runner, then training goes much more quickly than it does if you have no previous experience at running.
In a similar vein, family caregivers don’t always have the luxury of knowing how long they will be providing care. Sometimes your aging loved one’s need for care seems to creep up on a family unaware. Betsy experienced this with her mother over the course of several years. Living far from her family home, she saw her mom a few times each year and was able to recognize changes in Sarah’s abilities that were invisible to the son who lived next door. Only in the last year of Sarah’s life did Betsy’s brother agree that their mother needed more help, and when their mother broke her hip two months after her 97th birthday flexibility and preparation ahead of time helped the family navigate the changes that happened rapidly over a very short timeframe.
Betsy’s mother experienced two types of decline: a sprint and a marathon. The marathon came first, over the last five years of Sarah’s life. During this time Betsy’s brother set up home care services for a few hours each week to help with light housekeeping and laundry. The professional caregivers who came a few times each week took on household upkeep and also made sure Sarah was doing well. Initially, Sarah resented the “assistance” but agreed to it because she realized that it did make her life a little easier. Over the years those visits went from once or twice weekly to more often as Sarah stopped driving, stopped cooking for herself and began to have difficulty with more intimate tasks like bathing and dressing.
A few months before her mother’s 97th birthday, Betsy convinced her brother that their mom needed someone with her every day, and possibly overnight as well. Since neither of them was available to do this permanently, they worked out to have professional caregivers work a split shift of morning and evening hours to include weekends. This seemed to cover getting in and out of bed, meals, med reminders, bathing and dressing assistance, and driving for errands like grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments. The schedule worked well until the morning Sarah fell and broke her hip, about two months after her birthday. When she came home from the hospital, she needed someone with her around the clock who could help with things too medical for Betsy or Billy to handle, so having professional caregivers already in place was a huge blessing!
Sarah’s marathon of care changed to a sprint in those last seven weeks of her life, but because both of her children were watching her needs and changing her care over the previous five years, they were as prepared as they could have been for the last sprint. Betsy went for the first 10 days after the fall occurred, then returned home for a few weeks. She went back to her mother’s right after Thanksgiving and stayed until her mom’s death on December 21, 2017. Billy lived next door but was grateful for his sister’s ability and willingness to come and live in their mother’s home for those last weeks. And Betsy was able to do this because she had been preparing for this possibility for the last couple of years. She had put systems and people in place to cover her in her absence and keep things running in our business and at home.
If you have aging parents or family members that might need your help in the future, begin now to observe and ask questions. When you visit, take notice of the cleanliness and upkeep of the house. Check foods in the pantry and refrigerator to make sure there are fresh, healthy options. Notice if mail is piling up or past due notices are being received. Ask your mom or dad how their money is holding out if you have that kind of relationship, but be careful not to sound like you are wondering how your inheritance might look! Try to couch any money conversations around topics like which Medicare supplemental plan they are on and whether the copay covers enough. Even bring up how high your own utility bills were over the cold winter or hot summer, to see if this leads to a conversation about choosing between paying the electric bill or buying groceries.
If your parent has a chronic illness or condition that might make basic household tasks more challenging, suggest getting a housekeeper or caregiver who could take over things like dusting, vacuuming, and doing laundry. If this suggestion is met with any resistance, try to drop it and then revisit it at a later time. Talk regularly with other family members and friends if you live far away to find out if they have any concerns. Consider what kind of help might be needed over the coming years if not today. If you haven’t already done so, begin a conversation with an organization that can help you find the assistance your loved one may need when the time comes.
We hope you’ll join us this week at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about training for your sprint or marathon in family caregiving.