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Yolanda Reid Chassiakos

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3 Tips to Manage Caring for Elderly Parents

Posted: 07/22/10 01:44 PM ET

My friend Cindy was ready to tear her hair out. "It's bad enough that I'm living in a sandwich, but I'm starting to feel like chopped liver." Cindy's struggling to get her teens through high school, work full time in a wearing job, and, now, make sure her elderly parents are well cared for. What brought her to the edge was a problem that I'd heard echoed from many middle-aged friends and colleagues: demands and expectations not from her vulnerable daughter or her hormonally driven teens, but her "rage, rage against the dying of the light" elders.

"I figured I'd get grief from my kids when they got into their teens, but never expected that I'd be having more trouble with my parents." Cindy's mother has mild Alzheimer's disease, and her father retired a few years ago from a high profile career--both parents are dealing with significant losses, and their pain is shared with Cindy. On a daily basis. "Mom is depressed and dependent. Dad is always angry and irritable. I want to 'do the right thing' for my folks, but the stress is making me feel as old as they are."

Many of us in mid-life are finding ourselves sandwiched between generations and trying to cope. We're starting families at older ages, hosting adult children in not-so-empty nests, raising grandchildren, and caring for seniors living into their 90s and beyond. We are, as Cindy says, burning our candle at both ends, at risk for burning out ourselves.

Lending Cindy a sympathetic ear was the least I could do--glad she had the opportunity to share and vent. We also talked about some tips that could help folks caught in the middle of the sandwich squeeze.

1) If you're a caregiver, remember that the first rule is you have to care for yourself. You won't do anyone any good if you burn out or collapse.

- Make sure you get adequate rest, eat a healthy diet and exercise daily.

- Take breaks regularly that allow you to leave the caregiving environment and recharge.

- Build up your own support system to share stresses and concerns, and get help and encouragement.

- Be aware of the symptoms of burnout such as fatigue, dulling of your emotions, loss of motivation, loss of interest in social or other activities, appetite changes, etc... and seek out resources for assistance right away.

2) Don't try to be a hero. You can't do it all yourself.

- Define limits for what you are realistically capable of offering in the way of time, physical and emotional support, finances, etc.

- Get help to relieve you of some of the hardest responsibilities. For example, some options for supporting senior seniors: Hiring a caregiver, finding an independent or assisted living facility, utilizing adult day programs, enlisting other family members or friends to assist.

- Don't take on more than you have to. Helping seniors stay healthy and safe doesn't mean being a psychotherapist--or a doormat. Growing older provides joys, but also brings losses. Individuals' physical, emotional, and mental resources guide how they will respond to these changes. You can enlist health care providers, social services or mental health counselors to assist struggling seniors, but don't try to "practice without a license" yourself.

- Do ask trained experts to guide you in how best to deal with your parent's medical, physical and emotional issues. For example, some Alzheimer's patients may not respond well to attempts to deny their perceptions. Your parents' health care providers can advise you most effectively.

- Mental health providers learn not to personalize clients' negative behaviors, which is good advice when you're dealing with folks whose health or communications may be less than ideal. You'll be in a better position to help find solutions if you keep calm and cool.

3) Most importantly, if the stress or pain is too hard to handle, seek out counseling for yourself.

Cindy finally realized that she could only do what she could do. She identified the contributions she could make to her parents that would be most valuable, and strategized about how to set up assistance options for her parents' other needs. Her solutions were compromises (her father continued to complain) but Cindy reassured herself that she had done her best, understanding that she would never be able to give her father what he really sought: a return to the full bloom of youth.