When people reach their retirement years, they likely have visions of doing the things they never had time for before. Perhaps they want to travel, play more golf, volunteer for their favorite charity, or spend time enjoying their grandchildren. By the time they reach Social Security eligibility, most people are probably not expecting to be fulfilling a caregiving role for an elderly parent—and yet an increasing number of older adults are doing just that.
Increasing longevity means that many of our oldest citizens are living well into their 90s and even reaching 100 years of age. Over the past three decades, the number of Americans who have reached their 90th birthday has nearly tripled to more than 2 million. This number is expected to top 10 million by 2050. More than 8 in 10 of these older adults have a physical condition or disability that limits their mobility or capability to perform tasks; approximately 4 in 10 have some kind of cognitive difficulties.
Because of these physical and cognitive impairments, many family members are pressed into caregiving roles. The Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement reports that adult children account for 80 percent of caregivers for non-married older adults. Of these, more than half of them are older than 50 years of age. Many of these caregivers have reached their 60s or even 70s. In some cases, these caregivers may be experiencing some health issues that make caring for their elderly parent physically draining.
Joy Loverde, author of Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?, acknowledges the various challenges that older caregivers may face. She stresses the need for reframing reality to balance family caregiving with other aspects of life. At the same time, it’s important that older caregivers not neglect planning for their own futures.
“Dipping into your own pocket to provide parent care…burning the candle at both ends…combating loneliness and depression. If this resembles your current path of family caregiving, shortsightedness may be what is preventing you from devoting time to your own health, financial, and retirement needs,” Loverde observes.
With longer life spans becoming more commonplace in the future, older family caregivers need to evaluate various aspects of their life—financial resources, healthcare options, lifestyle preferences, etc.—and begin planning to ensure they are prepared if and when they need caregiving assistance themselves.
“Unlike past generations, you have the advantage of approaching old age, and all its implications, with eyes wide open,” Loverde says. “Living with chronic illness, juggling work and home responsibilities, dealing with a lifetime of accumulations, worrying about money—there is simply no denying the necessity to prepare for what lies ahead for you.
“You know for certain that living a long life is a probability,” Loverde adds. “Keep an eye on the big picture. Your caregiving years will come to an end, and before you may be ready to admit it, you will transition from caregiver to care-receiver.”
Think Like a Strategist
As you make caregiving decisions for your parent while also taking into consideration your own needs, Loverde advises that you think like a strategist. “As a family caregiver, and future care-receiver, you are in the position of making choices—for yourself and others—in spite of having partial and/or possibly inaccurate information. You have no way of knowing how things will ultimately turn out; yet decisions must be made.”
Loverde advises caregivers to take a moment to assess how they think. It’s important to remain calm and rationale during the decision-making process and also to gain new perspectives by seeking opinions from others who come from diverse backgrounds and cultures. “Tap into the life experiences of people who are much younger and older than you,” she suggests.
Take Care of Yourself
Older adults may find the burdens of caregiving more physically or mentally wearing than it otherwise would be if they were younger. Thus, they may need to give themselves permission to take a break from caregiving, and in that light, Loverde has several suggestions.
“A good night’s sleep makes all the difference in the world,” she says. “One of my favorite tips is to put someone you trust ‘on call’ and give yourself the night off. Hire a professional or ask a grandchild to step in. Knowing that your elder is in good hands from dusk until dawn may help you relax. Take a hot bath, light an aromatherapy candle, add bubbles, kick back, and read a magazine; then retreat to your bedroom for an evening of well-deserved quiet and peace.”
Be proactive in your exploration and investigation of your own health issues. “For example, when I have questions about my health, the doctor is not my only resource,” Loverde says. “I seek the wisdom of friends who have had the same or similar medical condition. I ask them, ‘What is it that you wish you knew, and did not plan for, early on?’ The doctor cannot tell me this essential information.”
Learn to Say ‘No’
Given that elder caregiving can be both physically and emotionally demanding, Loverde stresses the importance of setting boundaries and limits. There are several ways to do this, for instance by screening calls—“let voicemail pick up every once in a while”—and not always dropping everything in your own life to accommodate others.
“Self-respecting caregivers say ‘no,’ ” Loverde says. “Family members often think that the more they say ‘yes,’ the more they will be loved and appreciated. Truth is when someone close to us loves us, love doesn’t stop because we’ve said ‘no.’ Saying ‘yes’ when we need to say ‘no’ causes resentment, and ultimately, burnout.”
The bottom line is to have a plan to ensure that your parent’s and your own needs are covered. Make sure you have a back-up plan in case your current care plan eventually becomes unsustainable.
As Loverde observes, “The more you plan, the greater your peace of mind and ability to stay in control.”
CHIME IN: Are you an older caregiver? What are some of your strategies for being a caregiver and caring for yourself?