QUESTION: I am not yet a family caregiver, aside from caring for my husband and three children—all healthy and happy. But I know down the road I will be called on to assist, support and care for my aging parents as I live closer to them than my siblings. I see my friends having to balance their lives with the lives of their aging relatives and I’m wondering if there is something I can do to prepare. I’m sure my time will come.—Helen
ANSWER: Helen, thank you for your excellent question and providing me the opportunity to share some ideas about this important subject. Early preparation can go a long way in paving the path to being a healthy family caregiver. Engaging in crucial conversations is arguably the best first step you can take. Crucial conversations include discussing end-of-life issues with your parents while they are still healthy. Have they filled out an Advance Directive? Are their wills up to date? Do they wish to be buried or cremated? Have they reserved their burial site?
While these conversations are difficult to bring up, they are imperative. One way to start the conversation is to share your own feelings about how you want your end-of-life wishes carried out. Often we think we know what our loved ones would want, but when they are free to express their wishes, there are usually many surprises. Check with your parents to be sure their finances are in order. Do you or a sibling have power of attorney over their affairs? This conversation might lead to an appointment with an attorney who specializes in this area. They may have questions of their own that they haven’t expressed to you. Meeting with a professional will allow them the opportunity to find answers and lead to good, sound decision making. You might even want to broach the subject of handing down family heirlooms—your mother and father might want a particular child or grandchild to have a certain treasure. Best to get that information down on paper so when the time comes their wishes are respected.
Once you have laid the groundwork with your parents, it is then time to share the information with your siblings. If possible, you might want to call a family meeting where your siblings meet face to face. This will allow everyone to understand what is going to happen eventually according to your parents’ directives. Hopefully, that meeting will go smoothly and they will feel gratitude for your leadership. From there, if time allows, you could begin to check out assisted living facilities nearby. Talking with the director will help you to gage costs and available services. While you don’t know what type of housing or services your parents will require, having some knowledge about what is available will serve you well. What kinds of services are available in your community? Is there a senior center that offers breakfast and lunch at reduced rates? Are Meals on Wheels available? What about daily shuttles that pick up and deliver seniors to the doctor’s office, supermarket or shopping mall? You might want to question your Human Resources manager at work about family leave policies or working flex time, if necessary.
Lastly, reading as many books on aging and elder care as possible might be the best way to prepare yourself for your future as a family caregiver. Aging well is an art, and if you can recognize and understand the dynamics associated with this difficult, but natural, process, you can be of great help to your parents. You might consider two classics I have recommended with great success: From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, and The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister. Both of these wonderful books focus on the treasures of aging: wisdom, compassion and love. The authors touch lightly on the physical and mental challenges of aging, but more importantly offer great insight into our ability to continue to grow spiritually. And by doing so, we enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.com or Amazon.com.