Nearly 17% of Americans provide care to aging loved ones, and 54% of Americans in their 40s support aging relatives while either caring for young children or financially supporting adult children. Caring for aging parents can be deeply meaningful, affording you a chance to give back to people who have given you much and build a closer relationship.
However, caregiving can also be deeply challenging, often taking up as many hours as a full-time job. It is physically and emotionally exhausting, requiring deep care and emotional intelligence. And, of course, few families possess limitless resources. This may mean you must make difficult financial decisions, such as how to pay for childcare while you tend to your parent’s needs, the kind of professional care you can afford for your loved one, and how to juggle paid work with caregiving.
At times, these realities may feel impossible. If you’re a caregiver struggling with guilt or burnout, you are not alone — these challenges are normal. The right support and a solid plan can help lighten the load. Here are tips for maximizing the joy and minimizing the stress of caring for aging parents.
1. Talk to Your Parent
You might think you know what your loved one needs and how you can meet those needs. However, your parent is an adult who wants to live life on their own terms. The need for care and support does not negate your loved one’s desire to be independent or their right to make decisions about their own life. Care isn’t something you can impose on another person — and even if you could, starting your caregiving relationship with this power imbalance would put an immediate strain on the situation.
Instead, engage in an ongoing conversation with your loved one about their needs and goals. Put yourself in their shoes. Consider that, for example, if they’ve recently been diagnosed with a medical condition such as dementia, they may feel overwhelmed and scared. They also may worry about people taking over their life.
Make your loved one’s care a collaborative endeavor. Ask what they need most and how you can support them. Back off for a bit if they seem angry or overwhelmed. As the conversation deepens, talk about their vision for their future. Some questions to ask include:
- What do you worry about, and is there anything I can do to allay those fears?
- What is most important to you as you age, particularly if your health worsens?
- Where do you envision yourself living as your needs change?
- What feels right to you if you can no longer live alone?
- What passions or interests are most important to you as you age?
- If you experience cognitive issues and cannot express yourself, what is most important to you? What values do you want us to center?
2. Develop a Plan
A good plan allows you to rally your resources now and decrease decision-making fatigue in the future. Planning for the future should begin with consulting an attorney to explore your loved one’s options. Financial decisions you make now may affect long-term living options and your loved one’s estate. An attorney can also advise you about managing challenges, such as supporting a parent who does not want support or who does not realize the benefits the right support offers.
The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys can connect you to a lawyer in your area.
An eldercare coordinator can also be an invaluable asset. Sometimes called aging life care coordinators, these experts know about resources in your area and understand the aging process. They may know about options you are not familiar with and can help you ask intelligent questions to develop your plan for the future.
Remember that future planning isn’t just for people with lots of money or those in poor health. Everyone can benefit from thoughtful financial stewardship, and if independent living might be an option now or in the future, planning becomes important.
Knowing what you’ll do in various scenarios — and how to handle the legal and financial realities these situations present — can decrease stress and help your entire family feel more empowered.
3. Understand Your Parent’s Needs
The needs of a person living with dementia are different from someone with depression or diabetes. Even if your loved one’s condition is chronic or untreatable, the right diagnosis is critical to developing a treatment and care plan.
Once you receive a diagnosis, learn all you can about your parent’s medical needs. Some reliable sources for medical information include:
Understanding a diagnosis is about more than just knowing the symptoms and treatment. It helps to know how caregivers handle various challenges and what issues are most prevalent. Local support groups and online organizations are great for gathering more information.
Your parent should be involved in discussing their own hopes and plans. For example, not everyone wants to take dementia medication or undergo treatment for a life-limiting illness. Work with them to develop a plan informed by medical knowledge.
Also, consider their social and emotional needs. All people need meaningful connections and to feel a sense of purpose. If your loved one is no longer able to communicate or make decisions for themselves, draw on what you already know about them or what they’ve told others about their future needs.
4. Know That Care Is More Than Physical
It’s possible to provide your parents with optimal physical care — the right medication, regular doctor’s appointments, and a healthy diet — and unintentionally neglect some of their core needs. That’s because care is more than just physical. Emotional wellness, social relationships, and quality of life all affect your loved one’s well-being.
For example, a specialized diet might be shown to slightly halt the progression of dementia. But if your parent dislikes the food and feels sad every day about missing their favorite meals, the effort is probably not worth the cost. You must balance your loved one’s physical and emotional needs.
Promoting your loved one’s need for relationships with friends, family, and pets is also vital. Because aging and chronic illness can be isolating, meaningful relationships and experiences are more important now than ever.
5. Take Care of Yourself
Self-care is not selfish; it’s vital and integral to your ability to care for your loved one. Taking on a caregiving role does not mean your basic needs should take a backseat. Instead, it may amplify your need for rest and self-care. Here are some strategies to preserve your well-being and decrease caregiver burden and burnout:
- Carve out time each day for acts of self-care. Remember that self-care is more than bubble baths and lotion. It also includes exercising, eating healthy meals, and spending time on meaningful passions or interests.
- Consider joining a caregiver support group.
- Explore your emotions and build stronger emotional resources in therapy.
- Draw boundaries and stick to them.
- Ask for help when you need it, including from professional caregivers.
Educate yourself. These books help many people navigate the aging journey.
Lean on the Right Support
If your parent is living with a chronic or serious illness, caregiving may be impossible for you to manage by yourself. Eventually, you’ll need more help. The right support can help you pursue your ambitions at work, spend time with your kids, and live the balanced and fulfilling life you deserve. Adult Day services and senior living can also improve your loved one’s quality of life by offering enriching programs and plenty of social support.
You both deserve to feel your best. Learn more about your options here.