08/09/2011 04:32 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

Finding Superwoman: The Perils and Triumphs of Caring for Your Own Parents

Sometimes in life it is not humanly possible for one person to "do it all." We all have a threshold, and the reality is that becoming a caregiver for your own parents can trigger a series of events that topples everything. One day you feel like Superwoman -- excelling at work, maintaining a happy marriage, tending to family and friends while carving out time for yourself -- and then, all of a sudden, you find yourself responsible for meeting the physical and emotional needs of your ailing loved one. Superwoman who?

But, alas, there is humor, grace and success to be found in the rubble. Homewatch Caregivers was able to speak frankly with women about the challenges that they faced -- and joys they discovered -- in caring for an elderly mother, father or other loved one.

"I got good at picking people up off the ground and making sure their legs weren't broken," said Nancy Hallowell with a laugh as she recalled the years that she and her husband were on-call for her father. In his 80s, Ms. Hallowell's father lived with his wife and was fairly independent, but a spinal disorder caused his legs to crumple often.

Because she and her husband lived less than 10 minutes from her father, they became his "fire department" -- the people he called when he could not get up after a fall. Ms. Hallowell said that her "kind and understanding" husband only put up a "modest protest" once during those years, and that was on the night of their wedding anniversary when special plans were cancelled as they rushed to her father.

"When we become our parents' caregivers, the rules change," she said. "We are still respectful, but now we're more in charge, so to speak, and that's a delicate dance."

Teddi Samuels, who has been a caregiver for her aunt and uncle as well as her parents, said that humor is the saving grace for anyone sandwiched between her roles as daughter, mother, wife, friend and coworker.

"You have to have humor as a caregiver," Ms. Samuels said. "You can't function sanely if you take what is happening at that moment too seriously. It's almost ridiculous to be showering your father or changing Depends for your aunt or uncle -- I've been in that role myself."

Ms. Samuels was appointed a guardian of her uncle when she was only 32 and he had Alzheimer's -- a time when she was already married with children.

"You have to detach," she said. "Or life can become a real chore."

Ms. Samuels suggests that caregivers keep a joy journal to record happy moments in their lives, find a support system -- whether it's at church, online or with friends, maybe start a blog and even stop reading or watching the news to avoid negativity.

"When people get together, humor can become a natural part of conversation," she said. "Laughing reduces stress."

That stress can be quite serious, resulting in depression, Ms. Samuels said.

"We tend to gloss over the demands that caregiving places on families," she said. "People find themselves spending more time with their aging parent than their spouse. There are divorces, missing times -- like going to your own daughter's soccer game. It's pretty serious business."

Ms. Hallowell, a director of marking and communications for a software development company in Denver, is that person who can, at least in retrospect, find the humor in even macabre situations with her father in his final months. "My sister had the breakfast shift with him at the nursing home," she recalled. "One day she calls me at work and tells me that our father's roommate died and they are leaving the body in the room for the time being."

Finding this an intolerable act of disrespect to the deceased and her father, Ms. Hallowell said she dropped everything at work and drove straight to the nursing home in the middle of the day. "By then he was barely saying five words a day, and he was Mr. Conversation that day, so it told me he was feeling anxious about having a dead body in his room," she said. "I felt the need to be present in the room with him."

Ms. Hallowell speaks fondly of her father, who died at age 91 nearly fours ago. Yet she can acknowledge the strain it put on her. "I love to travel," she said. "Then you worry, 'what will happen when I'm out of town?' and that's the real impact -- not so much on my marriage, but on my psyche."

But what Ms. Hallowell remembers the most are what she calls the "sweet, lovely memories" she made with her father in his final days -- a wheelchair race with her father down the nursing home hallway, a funny discussion on the possibility of getting him medical marijuana and reading poetry together.

"There are no regrets," she said.