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The challenge of living with an older parent


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2001

Making choices is one of the most difficult things we have to do. They are serious business and can be so frightening that we hesitate to make them; we keep putting it off. Yet not to choose is itself a choice. We all know that to really make a wise decision, we need to think, examine the pros and cons, review alternatives, consult, pray and consider the big picture. The decision to have an older parent move in with you must be made very cautiously. It becomes a sheer balancing act for any adult child of aging parents but most especially if you are married with children and if you and your spouse are working. The more you know about what to expect and what could be red-flag points, the better off you will be when making this important decision.

It's important for us as caregivers to know that no married person should take on caregiving without the whole-hearted support of his or her spouse and the understanding of children. In trying to view the big picture, all aspects of your family life should be examined to determine whether adjustments can be made and whether all family members have the capacity to make them work.

A business associate told me: "I spent three years taking care of my father- and mother-in-law in their own home. This was without any relief or help from my husband or his brother. My husband thought I was doing a good job, so he was happy letting me do it. Even on the weekend, his brother just let me do the work, and he stayed involved in his own things. I wasn't prepared, and I kept absorbing more responsibility every day. Not having participation from my husband or his brother has been very frustrating."

The impact on your family is heavy: It tests, stretches and affects each member and every relationship. I remember very vividly the impact on us as a family when my mother-in-law came to live with us. At 62, she had a major stroke and was paralyzed on her right side. She had been in a nursing home, out of state, for almost two years.

My greatest concern was this: As a working woman, wife and mother of three, could I take on these added responsibilities? After all, she was my mother-in-law, a stroke victim, already institutionalized. Just how much partnership would there be? Would we share in the hands-on personal care? What would be the reaction of my children on a daily basis? I needed to talk details.

One of the first questions that a married caregiver must ask is: Do I have the complete approval and support of my spouse? A further list of questions to explore and discuss with all members of the family might start off this way:

  • How much help is everyone willing to give? Will I be in this alone, or will there be a willingness to share in responsibilities?
  • Will there be emotional support and a willingness to talk about feelings?
  • How do the children feel? Are they willing to pull together?
  • How will we divide our time so that the children don't feel neglected?
  • Do the children understand the care involved and that it will probably increase as the grandparent becomes more dependent?
  • In my family, we continued to discuss it over time. We talked about the drawbacks: Would it rob us of time and space? How could we handle her disability?
  • As caregivers, we all need time to explore all the options and plan for what is right for our families. You know best the family questions that need to be discussed so that proper planning beforehand can be effective. Remember, caregiving increases as the older person's needs increase.

Here are other questions to consider:

Can you take care of Mom/Dad in her/his own house? How will you divide yourself? Will your family take part? Will your siblings share in the responsibility? Have you had a family conference? Have you discussed options with your parent(s)?

Would an assisted-living facility be a better alternative where there could be 24-hour care? Or can some hired help assist in your parents' home so they don't have to move?

Will you be moving your parent(s) away from their support system of neighbors, friends, and community? Is that necessary at this time?

What are the pre-existing relationships between your spouse and the parents? Is there good or ill will between them? Are there problems with communication?

If you move your parents into your home, will you have to rearrange your home and schedules? Will you or your spouse be available for doctor visits and other errands?

Will you and your spouse be able to spend private time together? Will you both be able to go out at least one night a week by yourselves? Will you be able to take a vacation? Can you rely on your siblings to step in?

How much help can you realistically expect from your spouse? Will he/she resent this? Will he/she assume more chores? Will you be supported emotionally? Can he/she listen and share emotions?

How do your children feel? Are they willing to pull together?

The most important persons with whom to discuss a move is your parents. They come first, and it is their lives. Most parents do not want to live with their children -- they want their independence. In reality, with the many losses they have experienced -- health, family members, friends, status in the community, finances, self-esteem -- independence may be the only thing that they have left. It is fiercely guarded.

All older adults are entitled to respect and to their dignity. They also are aware of their dependence and don't like to be reminded of it. Neither do they wish to be burdens. These aspects of their life are very emotional and rarely discussed because they involve innermost, deep-seated feelings. We, as caregivers, even find these emotions difficult to discuss.

After our initial invitation, it took my mother-in-law three months to consent to be a part of our family, but it was her decision. It took the whole first year to graduate her from her wheelchair and institutional mentality. She had grown very dependent. The experience was not easy -- for any of us. No matter how much experience you have, there is no preparation for the emotions that are ever present. But we learned a lot. My children were the key players in her life. By the second year, she had renewed hope. She was up walking with a new determination, a new attitude and a new life.

In planning, there will be many other discussion points you will think of along the way as you consider this important decision. With any in-depth planning, make a detailed list. Have everyone give input.

Many families are trying to sort through these complex decisions. A Tampa woman said to me: "For my husband, I know it's not easy to consider having your older mother-in-law come to live with you. We've been talking a lot lately about this whole thing. He says we should just do it because my mother needs the added care, but I want to explore what this means for us and if it will cause a strain on our marriage. I really need his support if we're going to be any kind of real assistance. And I don't want to be alone in this."

Every responsibility we assume costs us in the short run, but as we go through each day, experiencing the stress and sometimes pain of caregiving, it pays off in the long run. The rewards are profound. You become wiser, more compassionate and more loving, and the dividends are out of this world.

Remember, caregivers make the present moment count!

* * *

-- Ethel M. Sharp is executive director of Aging Matters Inc., a non-profit network for family caregivers and elder care. You can write to her c/o Seniority, the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. When seeking more information, please enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope and include your telephone number, with area code.

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