Getting up and taking care of your kids is work. Your family and career usually take up enough space in your life for two full-time jobs, leaving little to no time for yourself. Some of those parents, whose lives are full of kids and work and some semblance of a social life, are also dealing with their own parents. The family grows from two adults and kids to three or four adults and kids, but some of the adults need just as much care as the little ones. It becomes an entirely different situation.
Many younger people are becoming the primary caregivers for their aging parents due to a multitude of issues. The average cost of a one-bedroom assisted living facility is $3,500 per month — an amount many people can’t afford. Or they try to afford it and impoverish themselves until the state pays for it with Medicaid. And that assumes that your parents would even agree to it in the first place!
The Not So Simple Life
Dealing with health issues as your parents age can be exhausting. This challenge gets even more difficult when you also have younger kids or when your parents are suffering from long-term illnesses that change them fundamentally, like dementia. These issues are becoming more and more common as we continue to help people live longer. We can increase the length of our lives, but that doesn’t come with a guarantee of quality.
If you had kids when it was just you and your partner, then adjusting to taking care of your parents is rough. There is nothing easy about taking on additional, unpaid care work. Depending on how much attention your parents require, it might even mean that someone needs to quit their job and stay home full time, adding a significant financial burden to the situation. If you have siblings, there’s likely to be arguments between all of you about finances, visits and who should help with the care.
The kids suddenly have to adjust to a new arrangement as well. More people are in the house that they are expected to obey, and there can easily be a clash of parenting styles as all the adults in the house try to find their place. Hopefully, if the kids are old enough, they can adjust quickly and need slightly less help. For younger kids, especially those in elementary school and under, the change can be confusing and frightening.
As the caregiver for all of these people now, it’s part of your job to help everyone figure things out. This situation often means you have to step into roles that you’re unfamiliar and uncomfortable with, including nursing care, mediator between siblings or advocate for your children against your parents’ wishes. These new positions are in addition to the others that have just gotten harder, including cooking, cleaning, transportation and childrearing.
While all this may sound overwhelming, you can make it easier on yourself in a few ways. Being realistic about what to expect and how much you can handle on your own will help. More importantly, you need to have a way to take care of yourself. There’s only so much you can give before you have to give something to yourself.
Being realistic about your family’s ability and willingness to get outside help can take away some of the shock when they turn out to need you. Keep an eye on your parents as they get older, and make sure they are trying to take care of themselves. Visiting the doctor, exercising and eating well are all essential to senior health.
Just as important but less often considered is the effect of loneliness on senior citizens. When people retire, they can lose contact with many of their friends. Try to engage your parents and find out what they do in their spare time. Encourage them to go out. Things like bingo nights, senior exercise classes and volunteer work can be incredibly beneficial and give them friends and a sense of purpose. Additional friends also means they have more people to help them out when they need it, which can take some of the burden off of you.
If you know you’ll have to move in with your parents at some point, make sure to talk to your kids about it. Even a three-year-old deserves to know there’s a change coming. Letting them know that you are still the one in charge and that they can depend on you will help them adjust.
Plan for Them
Just like small kids, adults benefit from having a schedule. That means scheduling everything and keeping a routine as much as possible. This idea is especially important for people who are caring for parents with dementia because the routine can help soothe them and keep them feeling safer. If you have siblings, stay in touch with them and let them know both how your parents are and how you are. If you need help, try to arrange for one of them to be a backup so you can take care of yourself too.
Let your kids know that there might be a tighter schedule and that they may be expected to pick up some extra chores. In fact, teaching them some basic life skills can help take the burden off you! Teens can be in charge of dinner one night a week, especially weekends if they don’t have a job. Smaller kids can learn to make their own snacks and get themselves dressed, which means one or two fewer things you have to be in charge of.
Plan for You
While it might seem like taking care of extended family will never end, it unfortunately will. It’s neither smart nor healthy to bankrupt yourself trying to care for your parents, even though it often seems like there’s no other option. Instead, budget care for your parents. Make sure you have your own support network separate from your parents, and arrange for your self-care.
Most importantly, don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself. Some days, if everyone is fed and no one is severely injured, that’s a win. If you are unable to depend on siblings to help take some of the burden, or if you don’t have any, remember that there are still resources available. The government offers several low-cost options for elder care, which can be completely affordable when used sparingly. Sometimes, those are just good options to get your parents involved in something regularly that doesn’t include you!
Taking on the role of primary caregiver for a parent is hard. It often stirs up a lot of emotions regarding your childhood, and the adjustment can be confusing and frightening to make. By considering the fact that it might be needed, planning ahead for it and making sure to include time for yourself, you can be a better parent both to your own kids and to your parents.