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Our Later Years

Caring for Aging Parents

The typical caregiver in the United States is a forty-six-year-old female who has some college education, works, and is spending more than twenty hours a week caring for her mother, in addition to providing housekeeping for a spouse or partner and primary care for children or grandchildren.1 Given her age, the typical caregiver is also likely to be going through the menopause transition.

My husband had just had spinal cord surgery and my mom, breast cancer surgery, and they were both here. I was really about at the end of my rope because I didn’t have the wherewithal to cope.

Many of us struggle to balance raising children or grandchildren, caring for aging or disabled loved ones, maintaining a household, and working full-time or part-time. Although men are more involved with caregiving now than in previous generations, women still do the majority of it. While we reap the benefits, we also shoulder the problems: emotional stress, risk to our health, reduced wages and job security, and diminished retirement guarantees. Without social and economic policies that support, affirm, value, and supplement the caregiving that we do, we’re facing an impossible task. Our society may sentimentalize motherhood and caretaking, but it does little to support the concrete needs of mothers and other caretakers. We need affordable, accessible, high-quality, comprehensive long-term care services to support our work at home, and paid leave from our jobs to do it.

If you are a caregiver—whether it’s a labor of love, a duty, or some combination of the two—give yourself credit and feel proud. You are doing important work. Providing continuity of love, care, and connection across the generations is of great value.

When my mother came home from the hospital, she was happiest when I drove down every other weekend to spend time with her. The minute we were alone together, we felt liberated. I called her friends and invited them over, cooked, paid bills, and generally kept her normal life going. She kept telling me how relieved she was that I was there. I thought, Finally, here’s one thing in my life that I am doing right.

Many of us may be worried about not having time for our spouse or partner or for our children, missing work, or not saving enough for a secure retirement. When the physical or emotional demands upon us increase, we are more likely to feel burdened by our caretaking responsibilities and less likely to take care of ourselves.

I was not putting myself first. I was putting my husband’s needs, my children, my job, and everything else first. My health was suffering and my quality of life was really in bad shape.

Take time to do good things for yourself. It is important to acknowledge your feelings, monitor and learn to manage your stress, and take care of your own health.

Also, recognize that caring for elderly family members is a responsibility that is difficult if not impossible to manage alone. Whenever possible, enlist help from others—whether your siblings, partner, children, other relatives, family friends, or paid professionals. Ask those who live far away to contribute financially or to provide you with occasional breaks. Organizations in your community may also offer help, such as free meal delivery and respite care. If you are financially able, consider hiring someone to help with cleaning or provide other assistance.

Caregiving can bring us closer to family, but sometimes it causes strain in family relationships. If conflicts arise on health care decisions, financial and living arrangements, or communication problems, help is available. The National Family Caregiver Support Program, created in 2001, is the first universal federal program providing information, support, counseling, respite, and other services to caregivers. (For information in your local area, call Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116.) You may also be able to find a support group in your community. If you live far from your older relatives, geriatric care managers can help organize needed services and solve problems.

Try to avoid potential problems by preparing in advance. Find out if your parents have drawn up a will, a health care proxy, and an advance directive or living will with instructions for emergency care and end-of-life decisions; if they haven’t, ask them to consider doing so. Make sure you and other important people in their lives have copies. Know where to look for Social Security cards, financial account information (pensions, checkbooks, savings passbooks, stock certificates, bonds, and trusts), health insurance (Medicare, co-insurance, Medicaid, long-term care), home insurance, and other legal documents. Having a power of attorney or signature on an account enables you to take care of bills and transactions if this becomes necessary. Find out what kind of living situation your parents want if they can no longer live independently. As we take care of others, it’s also important to think about our own aging and anticipate our own long-term.

End of excerpt
Excerpted from Chapter 10: Family Life and the Workplace in Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause  © 2006 Boston Women's Health Book Collective


1. National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, Caregiving in the U.S.: Findings from the National Caregiver Survey (Maryland: 2004); see also Families and Work Institute, Generation and Gender in the Workplace (New York: 2005). [back to text]

Excerpted from Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause, © 2006, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

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