My parents will turn 75 this year. Although in fairly maintained health, both suffer from some chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis. My mother began showing signs of early Alzheimer’s over the last couple of years and was finally put on medication for it a couple of months ago. Not being able to be as social as they once were certainly seems to have taken a toll on their cognitive health.
I feel as if this last year has aged them tremendously. As things begin to get back to some state of normalcy, I began thinking about ways we can support our aging parents. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a healthy relationship with our parents or guardians, but for those of us who are, there comes a sense of responsibility or obligation to them as the roles reverse and the child becomes the caregiver.
To learn more, I asked my colleague and CHD’s Director of Elder Services Audrey Monroe to walk us through the many insights and advice needed to maintain an older parent’s quality of life and help them to thrive:
1. Remind them they’re useful and needed
Everyone wants to be useful. We hear this a lot about childhood development but less when it comes to our elders. When you care for an older adult, do your best to make them feel like you still need their help and that they’re not a burden. Even if they can’t do certain tasks as efficiently as you’d like, that’s ok. What’s important is that they’re contributing and that you’re actually getting an extra hand as a benefit. Make sure to ask for help with tasks that they can handle. This can be going with you to help shop for groceries or run other errands, folding laundry, organizing drawers, keeping you up to date on the news and helping with dinner—for example, helping with prep like trimming vegetables or doing dishes afterwards.
2. Encourage regular physical activity
Regular physical activity, no matter how gentle, helps keeps both their body and mind feeling balanced and positive. Walking, gentle yoga, or swimming are all great options.
3. Keep them mentally active
Crossword puzzles, Sudoku or other brain games, reading, and writing are all great activities for mental stimulation. Memory care and stimulation are especially important with Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
4. Help them stay connected with family, friends, and community
Statistics show that seniors who are isolated and lonely live shorter lives and are at greater risk for dementia and depression. We have all gotten creative in keeping in touch during the quarantine. Now that we may be able to start gathering in small groups again if vaccinated, it’s important to help reintroduce our elders into social settings. There may still be a lot of anxiety surrounding this new normal or there may be a new disregard for precautions. Be sure everyone is educated on safety and take it slow. Arrange for family and friends to visit, eat with them or take them out regularly, get them involved in a hobby and encourage them to volunteer with church, community, or charity organizations.
As caregivers, feeling resentful or overwhelmed is normal. When you are looking after aging parents while trying to juggle all of your other responsibilities, it’s important to stay organized and focused.
- Set up routines for success
Don’t underestimate how helpful a daily routine will be—both for you and your older adult. A routine means doing the same basic activities around the same time every day. This provides structure and creates a natural flow to the day. Routines help seniors feel more secure because they know what to expect and reduce the need for you to make lots of little decisions throughout the day.
- Use a planner or calendar
Caregiving makes life complicated. Relying on memory to know when doctor’s appointments are, when payments are due, and when prescriptions need to be refilled adds to your stress. Use a planner or calendar to write down your older adult’s appointments and important tasks. This makes it easy to look ahead and know what’s coming up—no more panic over last minute surprises.
- Take care of yourself
It’s easy to put off caring for yourself when there are so many things your older adult needs. But if you don’t take care of your own physical and mental health, everything else suffers—including how well you can care for your older adult. If it’s not managed, caregiving stress can not only damage your health but your relationship with them. Taking time to relax and do something you enjoy is even more important with the added stress of being a caregiver. It doesn’t take much to prioritize yourself once you find a few things that work.
- Communication is key
Nobody looks forward to having difficult conversations about dismal circumstances but avoiding them doesn’t make it go away. Talking to aging parents or loved ones about their plans will make that difficult time of grief much more manageable one day. Some questions to ask:
Does your loved one have a will or trust?
Does your loved one have a long-term plan if becoming ill?
Does your loved one have a health care proxy?
Do you understand their funeral wishes, is anything prepaid?
Finally, Monroe reminds us that time is all we have. “Try to find the little spaces in between the chaos that will produce a wonderful moment that you both will enjoy. I have found that family of aging people often resist help or have a hard time finding help and they are forced into being a caretaker. When that happens, these fun, special moments are lost. Please accept or get help and continue to be the person they love spending time with.”
Our staff would enjoy spending time with your loved one while you are at work or creating time for your own self-care. CHD’s Hawthorn Elder Care Adult Day Health Program runs Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. If you are interested in learning more about Adult Day Health please call 413-221-5975 or visit chd.org/hawthorn.
This post references insights from other caregiving experts at dailycaring.com. Ranked Best Caregiver Website in 2020, dailycaring.com has additional resources to help caregivers support older adults with a range of challenges or other areas that may need to be addressed. Learn more.