Don't be Overwhelmed; How to Manage Caring for Older Relatives
It seems just like yesterday I was graduating college, starting my career, and getting married a couple of years later. As I write this, I have two kids in college and one in high school. I have even entertained conversations with my friends about what retirement will look like. As appealing as it sounds to wake up and treat every day as Saturday, I have no intention to do so anytime soon. I love working with my clients and am surrounded by a great team. Coming to work is something I enjoy and continues to be rewarding in many ways.
While my kids are now becoming self-sufficient in all aspects of their life, the inverse is occurring with my mom. My dad died a little over five years ago, and mom has been living alone in their home since. My dad was decidedly more extroverted and loved to interact with family, neighbors, people at church or others he volunteered with. My mom would much prefer to stay home, but her dementia is unfortunately making that a much more difficult proposition.
She gave up driving when my dad died knowing three of her four children live here in the Overland Park area. We are happy to help her with groceries, paying bills, taking her to doctor and dental appointments, keeping the yard maintained, etc. Her daily routine includes reading the newspaper, doing crossword puzzles, watching TV, and going for walks to get some fresh air. She is still alert enough to call me anytime she receives a suspicious phone call from Social Security, the IRS or someone pretending to be her grandchild as a scam.
She goes out for one to two walks daily depending on the weather. For someone who will turn 88 in November, she is in commendable physical condition. Sadly, she tripped on the sidewalk approximately two weeks ago on an uneven section and fell. She did not have her cell phone with her…something we continually remind her to do. Thankfully, a neighbor saw the incident and called an ambulance for her.
Mom’s injury was severe enough to require surgery. In preparation, she was given a brace to keep her leg stabilized and mild painkillers. She was instructed that it was critical for her to keep the injured leg elevated and in the brace. Seems reasonable, right? Maybe for you and me. For someone like my mom, however, living with dementia on top of this injury has been anything but easy. When checking in on her, sometimes the brace would be off, and she would be sitting in the chair as if things were normal. As you could imagine, she requires the constant attention of my siblings and I.
Within a week, mom had the surgery and was then transported to a local rehabilitation facility. She was in good spirits and commented on how well the staff was taking care of her. Soon thereafter, the recovery started to unravel. She struggled to remember which of her children had visited her that day. She couldn’t recall if she had done her physical therapy and struggled at times to call a nurse, turn on the TV or make a phone call. Despite her lack of progress, she began to ask when she would be going home. We would tell her that the physical therapy needed to be able to increase her strength enough to stand and walk before discussions of going home could be entertained.
Shortly after, things really came to a head. She somehow got out of bed, took off her brace and crawled around her room towards the hallway before sitting on the floor, knees bent and calling for help. She was extremely disoriented and repeatedly told the staff she was ready to go home. This incident undid everything the surgery had repaired. After reviewing mom’s condition, the surgeon’s assistant informed me that her age, bone health and mental state made it prohibitive to try another surgery to repair the new damage. Best case scenario: mom would regain enough strength to be able use a walker while permanently keeping the brace on for support. The more likely scenario: mom would be confined to a wheelchair and would need assistance transferring.
Knowing my mom, this news deflated my siblings and I just as much as it would her. Mom fought so hard to remain in her home and would now be faced with the reality of living in a skilled care facility for the remainder of her days. Even after passing along the news, I don’t believe she has fully come to terms with this new reality.
My mom will not be facing this alone. My siblings and I have become a care team for her. My sister and brother-in-law live only two blocks from her home. Prior to her fall, they would check on her daily to get her medications organized for the week and take her shopping if need be. My brother and his family are nearby as well. He would make sure the yard is maintained, take her to church weekly and address any home maintenance issues. I make sure her finances are in order and her estate plan is in place according to her wishes. My wife and I also take turns driving mom to her medical appointments.
It is always a juggling act trying to keep my work/home life in balance, especially now when taking on additional responsibilities for mom. We wouldn’t change a thing, but it is still difficult to see loved ones begin to struggle with their day-to-day lives.
My mom’s situation is not unusual. Many of you have told me of your difficulties trying to help aging parents and relatives. In my experience, here are some things I would say are the biggest priorities when taking care of aging loved ones:
- If possible, share the duties and responsibilities with others. It can be incredibly emotionally and physically draining being a caretaker. One person cannot do it all.
- Work with your family members always for the benefit of the person you are caring for. Trust you will not always agree on the course of action to take. However, the last thing your loved one would want is to see their family members fighting over their care.
- Check in on frequently. Be alert to signs of thing that appear out of the ordinary. (House becoming run down, dishes piling up in the sink, trash not taken out, spoiled food in the fridge)
- Go to as many of their medical appointments as possible. It became very clear that once we began attending mom’s appointments that she was not understanding and/or following through with the doctor’s recommendations.
- Question, question, question. Be an advocate. Ask questions as to their care and if you see a situation that concerns you, press for answers. The vast majority of care is good. However, there are simply situations where staff may be overwhelmed or not acting in the best interest of our loved ones. We continually encountered situations that would not have improved had we not said anything. “The squeaky wheel” almost always “gets the grease.”
Overall, the most important piece of advice would be to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Don’t take on more than you can handle. I have attached a brochure titled, “Your aging parents and you.” It is produced by MainStay Investments. Please take a moment and click here to review. As always, we are happy to help with any situation that may arise as your fiduciary.