The average American woman can expect to spend 18 years caring for elderly relatives. Of the 66 million people serving as caregivers in the United States, 49 million are taking care of an adult. Forty-two million of those are women.
By Sarah Varney
The average American woman can expect to spend 18 years caring for elderly relatives. Of the 66 million people serving as caregivers in the United States, 49 million are taking care of an adult. Forty-two million of those are women. These women have become the “Designated Caregiver”, a position that is rarely discussed among siblings. In her two-hour “Heard in Rye” presentation April 22, speaker Sandra W. Haymon, Ph.D. gave a funny, but sobering account of her nine- year battle to serve as the “designated caregiver” for her mother and longtime stepfather.
Haymon used tales from her experience to illustrate how to stay sane and balance family with caretaking duties. (Here’s a hint: it wasn’t smooth sailing and it’s a story that includes farm animals, Jim Beam, and nine puppies.) Haymon’s most recent book, “Baby Boomers Sandwiched Between Retirement and Caregiving”, includes a extended checklist to help offspring gauge a parent’s mental state.
Despite some genuinely hilarious anecdotes, Haymon found herself scrambling constantly to continue her graduate studies and juggle her elderly parents. The stress was awful. “We feel like no one understands, like we’re on an emotional roller coaster. Well, I hate to tell you but it is an emotional roller coaster. The trick is to get off,” advises Haymon.
Denial is a huge stumbling block and it’s one that trips up most adults with failing parents. “We never saw it coming,” is something Haymon hears frequently. “Denial is a distortion of information and it exists to keep things as they are. It protects us from emotional pain and nothing can change until you see the situation [with your parents] as it really is. You have to come out of denial.”
In 1996, Haymon was pressed into service as the Designated Caregiver for her parents and she’s honest about her own drawn-out period of denial — denial that they needed to be in a nursing care facility. Her mother was suffering from dementia and her stepfather had a collection of health issues. “Caregivers in denial think they can ‘fix’ the problem. That’s what I did,” she says. First, she moved her parents from their farm so they’d be closer to her. They had chickens, goats, cows, dogs, cats, and other animals on the farm and they were loath to leave them behind. Finally, Haymon persuaded them to come with just five cats and two dogs. A few days after they’d settled into their new apartment, one of the dogs gave birth to nine puppies. “We hadn’t even known she was pregnant!”
Another time, her parents went off to visit their hometown on their own and came back with two chickens they smuggled into their condo. “The next morning my mom was on the back porch with the chickens. She’d wrung their necks and she was fixing to pluck the feathers because that’s how they did it down on the farm. Well, the neighbor kids were mesmerized. They’d never seen such a thing and neither had their parents. I got a call from one of the neighbors asking: ‘Is your mother doing some sort of Satanic ritual?’”
But Haymon was still in denial, still believing that her parents could live on their own. Her stepfather’s driving grew perilous and she had to take his keys away. “Food would go bad because they thought the heat switch was the A.C. and they’d leave it out,” Haymon says.
Pills were another issue. In another attempt to fix the problem of her parents living on their own, Haymon bought them each a pill container with the days of the week so they’d know what medications to take. It didn’t work. “She’s taking his pills and he’s taking hers. Some days they don’t take them at all and other days they’d take more than they should,” she recalls. She came to check on them and found pills spilled everywhere.
Finally, her stepfather mixed Jim Beam with the wrong pills and slipped into a coma. Haymon recounts what she calls that “Infamous Valentine’s Day,” when her denial cleared up. She placed her mother in a nursing care facility and her stepfather followed soon after.
Guilt is usually the reason that Designated Caregivers choose to keep their elders at home. “Some people come to me and say ‘but I promised my father I’d never put my mother in a home’. I tell them you said that but what you meant was that you’d take care of her to the best of your ability and you’ve done that,” says Haymon.
Avoid guilt by avoiding the ‘should-haves’. “When you say ‘I should’, substitute the word ‘could’. Instead of saying ‘I should have Mama living with me’, say ‘I could have her live with me’, and then think about how that would be. You can consider options with ‘could’ instead of ‘should’ and you can stop feeling guilty,” adds Haymon.
Once you’ve gotten off the guilt ride, Haymon advises caretakers to try to add fun activities into their caregiving routine. For example, Haymon used to take her parents to the movies. “They loved it and I could sleep for a few hours!”
Find things that your children can help with. Try to set it up so that you and the children have a relationship with that person that goes beyond tolerance.
Use the “parrot method” with your elderly parent, she suggests. “If you tell your relative ‘Tuesday at 4’, see them Tuesday at 4. If they call and ask you to come over sooner, just keep telling them ‘Tuesday at 4’. You can’t give up your own life. You have to take of yourself, too,” stresses Haymon.