Who Is Going to Care For Me?

October 24, 2022

Middle aged woman posing with her sick old mother in the garden

The woman was a grandmother but young by today’s standards – 64. She had been divorced for years but was hard working and self sufficient until the cancer diagnosis. Reluctantly following her physician’s advice, she had to quit work and file for disability. As the disease gained a further hold, she went on SSI and Medi-Cal.

She lived in her own small home in Southern California during this time but made the decision to move back east to rural Maine to live with a daughter and family in a 150 year old large farm house while she was getting treatment. She downsized, sold most of her belongings and with an adult son accompanying her moved to Maine.

It was a surprise and a difficult decision to hear that she wanted to return to California after several months. Feeling isolated, unable to drive many days and feeling the progression of the cancer hit her hard. Her California daughter asked her if she wanted to move back. She did but now the choices were few.

She returned to California and moved in with her daughter and large family. It was obvious from the start that her disease was progressing. Numerous hospital stays, rounds of chemo that weren’t successful told the stark story. After just five months she died in the hospital. Her three children had helped, had tried to adapt to her increasing health needs and changed their lives to try and be caretakers for their mother. Now looking back I’m fairly sure we did the best we could but I wonder if all three of us couldn’t have done a better job.

As we grow older it rapidly becomes apparent that the ability to be as self sufficient and independent isn’t what it used to be. The health questionnaire at the doctor’s office asks if you are independent at all these tasks i.e., meal preparation, showering, laundry, driving, walking, etc. The questions are a direct yes or no response but wait, it really is more than that.

What do you fix for meals these days? Looking for easier ways to have and eat a meal? Prepared frozen meals or a Costco chicken with a bag salad qualifies as a meal. A cheese and cracker plate works just fine and you can still call it a light lunch. When taking a shower, does it tire you out and you find it’s good to sit afterward to rest? Setting out the tasks for when your energy is best or even there are critical. Self sufficient means you can do it but thank goodness, no one is timing you.

For many of us, we’re able to care for ourselves, albeit a different way than when we were 50. We’re slower, more deliberate choosing what tasks to accomplish and which ones don’t seem as important anymore. With a couple it can be a little easier because there are two to get the job done. Share the load, do the laundry, fold the clothes together and put them away. Helping each other with meal preparation and clean up or just deciding to order a pizza to go can ease the day particular at supper toward day’s end.

If one becomes ill or disabled, it’s quite apparent to both that the ease in the tasks is on one person’s shoulders and not two. If that isn’t bad enough, the well partner now picking up all the daily chores now has to help care for the less abled partner. Ensuring medication is taken, keeping hydrated, doing all the driving with care responsibilities increasing if the person isn’t getting well. This is never easy but when both people have “reached an age” it becomes a burden that the person doing the caring hasn’t realized.

Who will care for me? Is a mantra that eventually will face everyone. It is assumed and taken for granted that parents will care for the children they’re raising. Some parents do this with great success; others do not. Is it any different when those needing care are old and ill? Do adult children have any more expertise in caring for an aging parent than the parent had when caring for that six year old child? It is a learning experience on both ends of the age spectrum with little time or energy to get the knowledge from a book. You just have to start because the need is there.

The scenario is most common. Dad & Mom live alone with several adult children and grandchildren that live several hours away. Upon visiting the parents, the adult children realize that the parents are struggling. The house always “clean as a whistle” isn’t. The yard is straggly with weeds uncut and high. The parents are rather casual about their dress with sometimes an odor that indicates less bathing. Food may accumulate in the refrigerator or sit on the counters or maybe there is little food available other than the pizza box on the counter.

The kids have always assured their parents that they will care for them. Now it is upon them and how is that going to work? The parents feel they’re fine. They know their adult children are busy. They have jobs. They have children. They live two hours + away. We don’t need any help. Thank you very much.

The kids recognize that the parents need help and they want to but….they have jobs. They have children. They live two hours + away. What can happen that will give their parents some support but happen in a timely manner so the adult kids can make it work too? Is it something the family can talk about together?

This calls for creative thinking and discussion about what can be done. It doesn’t mean the parent(s) sell the house and move in with kids or move closer into an Assisted Living Facility although those suggestions are on someone’s minds you can bet. What it does mean is talking about support and physical help with those chores that are almost impossible to do anymore. Here are some ideas to consider:

Older Person(s)

Start a list of chores you no longer feel safe doing i.e., cleaning gutters, hanging Christmas lights, moving heavy furniture, getting rid of unused appliances, all day yardwork.

Keep the list as an active To Do list. Add and take off as you’re able to get to it.

Think about how helpful it would be if one of your adult children or grandchildren called on a Saturday morning, told you they were coming to visit and said they were coming to help you.

Don’t say “No”. I just want to have you visit not work.” They want to help. You can use the help.

Decide to feed them. Make iced tea, buy soda or stock up on ice for good, cold ice water. Call the pizza place and order pizza for lunch.

Look forward to the visit.

Adult Children/Grandchildren

When you’re calling to see how the parents are, tell them you’re planning a visit to help around the house.

Don’t let them tell you “No”. We just want to see you. You don’t have to work.” Ignore those comments.

Show up in old clothes ready to work and look at the list. If there’s no list, look around and see how you could help. Can you clean up the yard? Do laundry, scrub the bathrooms, run the vacuum, clean the cat box, etc.

Plan to give them several hours with time to sit at the table and visit as you have the pizza.

Let them help. In fact, have them tell you what would be most helpful. You might be surprised what they’re worried about. Does the car need an oil change or the tires checked for air? Can you help clean out the refrigerator or the cupboards?

It may not be Thanksgiving, Christmas or another special holiday but when adult children or grandchildren take a day to visit and help will go a long way to helping assure independence and caring. Some additional ideas may be:

  • Talk with older adults & family members about how to make a work day happen.
  • Come ready to work. Use this as an opportunity to visit too while you’re working.
  • Plan on having a work day every now and then.
  • Know that this help will give the older adults/parents a huge boost.

Additional help may be needed on a day to day basis but these work days are a good way to acknowledge that the older parents could use the help & support. It can be a beginning of discussions about more help weekly that will give them the safety and ability to remain at home. It can be fun, hard work with unsaid thanks from the older adults but very worthwhile.

Carol S. Heape, MSW, CMC is Founder of Elder Options, Inc. serving the Sacramento Region & South Lake Tahoe since 1988 and assisting older adults and their families “Live Life Fully Every Day”.

Categories: Caregiving, Healthy Living