Life enrichment is one reward for care-giver

April 14, 1991|By Jane Clifford | Jane Clifford,Copley News Service

Myrna is a middle-aged woman whose children are grown. She's ready to relax and enjoy being with her husband.

But Myrna is more than a wife and mother. She's also the only child of an 83-year-old woman who now needs to be cared for.

"I feel it is my responsibility to do it," Myrna says. "It's a family tradition. My mother did it for her mother. My grandmother did it for her mother."

The thought is somewhere in the subconscious minds of many children: Someday their parents will be old or too ill to live alone.

And then that day arrives.

"They notice their parents are slipping," says Nancy Nesa, manager of a hospital's senior services division, "or there's a medical emergency in the middle of the night."

Then adult children are caught off guard, forced to make decisions that will affect their own futures as much as their parents'.

Now, programs are evolving to reach out to those who are caring for their parents -- or think they will be in the future -- to teach them how to do the job and provide them support while they're doing it.

A sense of duty, of paying one's parents back, frequently leads children to become caregivers. They move their parents in with them, or they run back and forth daily between houses, so mom and dad can maintain the independence of living in their own home.

Either way, experts say, caregiving is a stressful and demanding job and one for which most adult children are ill-prepared. They have no idea how much their own lives will change or how difficult it will be to cope with those changes.

It happened to Myrna six years ago. Her mother moved in. For Myrna, it has meant the loss of time with her husband, their social circle, even her job.

It wasn't a big-deal job, she says, but it was one she enjoyed -- working in a bank and saving money that she and her husband could use for travel. Now the travel plans are on indefinite hold. And she can't remember the last time she had lunch with a friend.

Myrna says her husband helps her a lot in caring for her mother. But he can't help much with the anger, frustration, resentment and isolation Myrna has experienced. Or the guilt for feeling those things.

"I have so many mixed emotions," she says. "I know I'm prolonging her life, but I'm shortening my own."

Average life expectancy in the United States has reached age 74, up from age 45 at the turn of the century. Experts credit that increase to better health care and people taking better care of themselves.

Today, the over-85 age group is the fastest-growing one in the nation, and the pace is not likely to slow.

When they are no longer strong enough or healthy enough to care for themselves, their families often take over.

"About 87 percent of caregivers are women," says Ms. Nesa. Caregivers are "divided about 50-50 between spouses and daughters."

She added that often, daughters-in-law are the ones caring for their husbands' parents.

When the caregiver is a daughter, she frequently is holding down a job, raising her own children, or both. The added responsibility of caregiving can be overwhelming.

Some hospitals have responded by hiring social workers, psychologists and health professionals who understand the aging process to teach classes that will help ease the burden.

"The key theme is caring for the caregiver," Ms. Nesa says. "There are certain skills to make the job easier; that's what we teach in the class. But the real need is to share the emotional experience of caregiving and [for them] to know that they are not alone."

The goal is to make the job of caregiver more joyful.

That's just the way it has worked out for Catherine.

A couple of years ago, her 71-year-old mother was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery was followed by a lengthy series of radiation treatments. Her recovery was a long and painful process for everyone in the family.

"My mother always did everything," recalls Catherine, the youngest of three children. "She was always the typical caregiver herself, doing what mothers and wives did in the '40s, '50s and '60s."

All of a sudden, she could do nothing. It was an especially uncomfortable reality for Catherine's father, 74, himself suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Catherine and her siblings found themselves caring for two parents -- helping run their home and, in a sense, their lives during her mother's illness.

Catherine, who has a full-time job at a university, felt the typical caregiver's double whammy, the physical fatigue from the daily routine and the mental fatigue of worry and role reversal.

She would get up at 5:30 a.m., check on her parents and be at work by 8. If she needed to be late or leave early, she says, her boss was understanding. She would leave the office at 5, drive 40 minutes to her parents' home to visit with her mother, then cook dinner, do dishes and the wash.

"It got to the point where you just took over and did it," she recalls. "My father didn't know how to run the washer and dryer. I'd plan the meals and send him to the store."

Before she left each evening, she would sit down and talk to her dad.

"I remember when my dad turned to me and said, 'What are we going to do, dear?' I said, 'I don't know.' He was supposed to know."

What she learned in a caregivers' class helped her keep up this grueling schedule until her mother was somewhat back on her feet.

She found out about home medical equipment she could get to make caring for her mother easier. She learned about her mother's illness, how to see the situation from her parents' point of view -- their fears, their needs.

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