Aging Parents: Over-Stressed, Caring Children

“Stop the world, I want to get off.”
A feeling of over-stress? A cry for help? A need for respite?
A needed vacation from aging parents?

Are caring readers of Help! Aging Parents as good to themselves as they are to their aging parents?

Often, it seems, the time when we are most stressed and need a break is when aging parents are in a somewhat “ify” state (but not in crisis), especially if it’s going on and on. While we needn’t travel far away, a short, getting-out-of-town trip (beach, mountains, visit an old friend)–that physically removes us from the scene for a short time–can break that tension and be renewing. Of course we need a responsible person available to stand in for us while away, and that’s where Dr. Thomas’s and Ms. Russo’s ideas come into play.

Geriatrician Bill Thomas, MD, (What’s Elderhood post Jan. 8th) legitimizes liberating ourselves by getting past our idea of being the indispensable caregiver and acknowledges the value of caregiving as a partnership. So often we have no partnership; we think we are the only ones who can do it. (Granted sometimes that’s true.)

According to a geriatric social worker who headed Services for the Elderly at a family counseling agency in NY, “our roles are predetermined early on. The caregiver is already identified in early childhood” (is that you?), “the other siblings aren’t so involved.” Of course that doesn’t exclude the other siblings from helping when needed.

Francine Russo, author of They’re Your Parents Toomade this point when I heard her speak last year. Among other things, she shared the fact that, as a far-away-living-child, she didn’t initially think of–or realize the value of– offering to take over for her sister (who lived near their mother) so her sister could have a short vacation when Fran came to visit. Seems it’s not unusual to assume that the sibling shouldering most of the responsibility is comfortable in that role all the time.  Not true, unless that person is a controller BIG TIME, and even then it doesn’t hurt to offer.

A short get-away can “Stop the World”–temporarily–and provide time to relax and regroup. And even if bad stuff happens while away, it’s possible to return from where-ever more quickly than you might imagine.

Before 911 we scheduled a trip to Italy with friends. Mother had been hospitalized after  falling in a dark theater. It resulted in a broken pelvis and peritonitis–necessitating major surgery. At 87 she was progressing well, but issues remained. We were conflicted about going far away but didn’t want to disappoint the other couple. We ultimately decided to go, after I carefully instructed my brother as to how to proceed with our mother’s care.

We arrived in Milan mid-morning, had a fun day, and delicious dinner. The weight of concern and responsibility began to lessen. I was beginning to feel almost carefree. Late that night the phone rang.  Mother’s caregiver thought Mother was dying and she couldn’t get the doctor to order oxygen, which she thought was needed. She called Hospice.

I immediately made a reservation to fly to NY in the morning, then on to the West Coast where I arrived at 11pm Pacific Standard Time–getting there the same day I left Milan–the time change being in my favor. (Note: check whether airlines are understanding about health emergencies and charge accordingly when proof is provided.)

That abbreviated trip enabled me to spring into action. I quickly learned one of Mother’s problems was too much medication (made it easier for one of the caregivers, it turned out). A phone call to an MD friend, teaching at a university hospital’s medical school, led to an appointment with a geriatrician at the medical school near my parents and a major medication overhaul began. I guess my adrenalin was working overtime, because I also phoned Mother’s doctor, leaving the message Mother wouldn’t be coming for her appointment next week–or ever. The geriatrician became her primary doctor, Hospice was cancelled. Mother lived another 3 years, which included several trips to  California.

As we try to help parents age well, it’s also important to find time to be good to ourselves. The speech we hear on the airplane prior to take-off about placing the oxygen mask over our nose and mouth before helping others is applicable. Its amazing what a quick get-away can do to help reduce our stress (I was only away a day)–putting us in a better position to help others–in this case–our aging parents.