As the population ages, more caregivers are stepping up to meet their growing needs. If you have an older family member, you might be the one who cares for them — or might soon be caring for them. If so, you’re not alone.
Nearly 17 percent of adult Americans (that’s 41.8 million) provide unpaid care to an adult who is 50 years old or older. Most of the caregivers (75 percent) are women who spend as much time caregiving as they would at a full-time job.1
Caregiving can encompass everything from grocery shopping and preparing meals to managing medications and doctor appointments. And so much more.
Thankfully, there are many avenues of long-term care support available. And that’s a good thing since 7 in 10 people who reach age 65 (and are expected to live for another 20 years) will need some form of it. And 1 in 5 of them will need long-term care for five years, or longer.2
Currently, your loved one who receives your care might live with you or on their own. To help ease the load, you have options to assist them. Home caregivers are ready and able to help with daily living activities, such as grocery shopping, meal prep, light housekeeping, grooming, and personal care. The median cost for these types of services is $27 per hour.3 Home health caregivers offer a bit more help, such as skilled nursing and rehabilitative therapies.4 If more concentrated care is needed, consider such long-term care options as assisted living, memory care, and nursing home facilities.
Long-term care is not cheap. Encourage your parents to make financial plans for their long-term care needs before it’s required and explore different ways to offset elder care costs. (For example, is your parent eligible for veteran benefits?) Also, discuss their finances so you’re not left in the dark about how their care will be paid for. It might be a prickly subject so tread gently. Some questions to ask include: Do they have a financial professional? What’s the status of their retirement and investment accounts? Do they have life and long-term care insurance? Where do they keep their legal documents?5
Something else to keep in mind is that sometimes a family member can get paid to provide care for a loved one. For example, certain government programs pay a family member who provides care to their veteran or disabled relative. Also, some long-term care insurance coverage allows the payment of family members of caregivers.6
Sometimes it’s apparent when your parents start needing more care, especially if they have physical health limitations. Other times, it’s not. It’s likely your parents won’t come out and say, “Please help me!” when they start needing more care or are unable to complete everyday tasks. It’s up to you (and your siblings, if you have them) to see if they need help.
You can start by asking them questions: Are you able to run your normal errands, like shopping at the grocery store? What in life has gotten to be more difficult for you? What do you enjoy doing? What can I do to help? So as not to barrage them with a lot of questions, also be sure to play the role of observer. What is the condition of their home? If they were always a neatnik and now their house is in disarray, what clues is that giving you? Are they showering and dressing every day?
Dignify your parents
If it turns out that your parents do need more help, be sure to provide them with autonomy and choices, to help preserve their dignity. This goes without saying when it comes to their medical care. But it also applies at home, whether they live in their home or yours. Doing the following things will go a long way.
- Give them choices. If you need to help them get dressed, let them decide what to wear. Do they want to wear the red sweater or the blue shirt?
- Keep them on task. If they want to continue paying their own bills, let them. You can provide the stamps (and mail them) so that you can check that everything is being covered.
- Ask their advice. For example, if you are struggling with something in life, ask them if they experienced something similar and how they handled it.
- Have fun. Remember that your relative is a person with feelings and interests. Play a favorite game, go to a movie, or listen to a well-loved album together.
Be their advocate
Clear and open communication with your parents will help you learn what they need and want. Then you can communicate these things to their care team and anyone else who plays an active role in their life.
Being an advocate comes with a lot of paperwork and planning — both of which can be hard to keep track of. Taking an organizing course, using a caregiving app to manage medication and schedule appointments, and making digital copies of key documents such as medication lists and living wills can help.
Then, there are the in-person meetings you’ll have with medical professionals and other providers. To have them go smoothly, be prepared by doing your research ahead of time and put together a list of questions. When speaking up for your loved one, be sure to also listen carefully to who you’re seeking answers from. And if you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
Building a good relationship with your loved one’s care team and having a positive mindset will go a long way.
Work together with your siblings to manage care
Managing the care of an elderly parent is stressful. Try not to do it alone. If you have adult siblings, work with them to help make the load lighter. One sibling might be good at managing finances and scheduling appointments while the other is good at making sure Mom takes her medication and calling her to say goodnight. Play to each person’s strengths.7
When it becomes clear that an aging parent needs more focused attention, it’s natural for one sibling to take the lead. And that’s perfectly fine. However, that doesn’t let the others off the hook — even if they live far away. In fact, some 15 percent of U.S. caregivers assist their loved one from an average distance of 450 miles away.8
Thankfully, it’s become easy to take on tasks remotely, such as ordering groceries online, paying bills and managing finances, coordinating medical care, arranging meals and visits from neighbors and friends, and finding a local business to mow the lawn or shovel the driveway. It’s important that the long-distance caregiver doesn’t do everything from a distance — they should schedule an in-person visit with their loved one to give them some TLC.8
It's important the long-distance caregiver be mindful to not allow the distance to make them feel distant from their local family members. A semi-weekly or monthly video call can help bridge that gap and also offer a visual aid as to how the elderly parent looks.
Of course, it’s almost inevitable that siblings who are juggling various caregiving tasks and responsibilities might feel some tension toward each other. Communicating and clearing the air can clear the tension between a local and a long-distance caregiver. That’s important to do so that the siblings can develop mutual empathy for each other.
Having empathy — for your aging parent, for other family members, and for yourself — will lead to better care all around.
That means at the end of the day (or the beginning), it’s imperative that you carve out some time for yourself to meditate, exercise, read, or do whatever else that fills your cup. You’ll notice a difference in yourself — and so will your loved ones.