Elder Care Caregiver Stress: How to Cope with the Unpredictable

Most smart and caring women will likely have to cope with elder care caregiver stress at some point in their lifetime. It isn’t something you can prepare for. And, I admit I avoided thinking about caring for my parents…until I couldn’t.

Photo by Danie Franco

When I first left advertising research and went to graduate school, my plan was to start corporate on-site child care centers. One of my professors urged me to reconsider. “Instead of child care, why don’t you consider elder care. The population is getting older, yet fewer are paying much attention to resolving it. There is a greater need and you’ll probably make more money.”

I knew she was not wrong. And, while I did change my mind about providing child care services, I didn’t take her advice. I went into work-family research instead.

That was probably over 25 years ago.

Sadly, I don’t think this country has figured out elder care issues yet. Moreover, the demographic predictions my professor made are still true. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau projections, by 2034, we will have more older adults than children for the first time in US history.

Moreover, there are some sobering statistics from the National Study of the Changing Workforce, a representative study of US employees last conducted by the Families and Work Institute in 2016:

  • A little more than one in five US employees (21%) provided special attention or care for a relative or in-law 65 years old or older – helping with things that were difficult or impossible for them to do themselves – within the last 5 years.
  • Over a quarter (29%) of all US employees expect to have elder care responsibilties in the next 5 years.
  • Of employees who say they wanted to work more hours, 85% (representing 17% of all US employees) name child care or elder care responsibilities as a reason why they do not.

When I provided these statistics to the listeners of the Mom and… Podcast last week, I reminded Susanne Kerns and Missy Stevens (the hosts) that these statistics are only among those who are employed. We’re not counting those who are self-employed or maybe left employment altogether because of caregiving demands.

Even though I knew it was coming, I avoided thinking about my own parents’ aging and what that might mean. My brother and I perhaps had a couple of cursory conversations with them. But, to be honest, I didn’t want to even think about more caregiving responsibilities since I was busy raising my children.

The unpredictability and inevitability of elder care cargiving stress

Like so many others who care for their aging parents, I had to face caring for my parents. I wrote about what happened to my family in The Independent. But, I know I’m not alone:

The transition can come with a jolt–after a fall, a stroke, or a diagnosis–but more often than not the demands of parentcare slide slowly into our lives.

Virginia Morris, How to Care for Aging Parents

The challenges are tough:

  • Even though we know the population is getting older and all of us face getting older, how people age isn’t predictable. While many aspects (not all!) of child development are predictable, there are no typical developmental stages of aging beyond broad storkes.
  • As a result, support (while not at all perfect) exists for child care in a way that it does not for elder care.
  • A history exists between the child caregiver and the adult in need of care. And, that makes a complicated situtation of role reversal even more complex. Emotional strain for both parties is inevitable.

How to cope

Here are some suggestions–much of this is based on my wisdom from my clients that helped and help me:

  • If you see elder care on the horizon, don’t bring on the stress early or unnecessarily by worrying about it now. Rather, try to stay just one step ahead. Talk to your parents or aging relative and ask what they feel they need help with.
  • If your sibling is providing the care, don’t be a back-seat driver but stay in the car. Offer assistance and provide support after asking where your help is most needed. Then, listen and pinch hit.
  • If you are providing care, find support. Talk to friends and relatives who can give you comfort. Take breaks. Don’t try to do everything at once. Recognize your limitations. Do what you can but never aim for “everything.” Give yourself permission to let go of what you cannot control or cannot do. Respect your parents/relatives and find new ways to enjoy your relationship or simply be with them.

Finally, remember that nothing in this world is all good or all bad. There are unexpected silver linings to elder care. For me, my relationship with my father has improved. He appreciates me and the work I do in ways he had in the past. And, I have witnessed the patience and depths of love he has for my mother that warms and embraces my heart.

Your turn

What suggestions do you have for other smart and caring women?