The Family, the Caregiver and the Aging or Ill Parent

By KRIS KERLIN, M.A. LPC-S,
Founder of the Center for Stress Management
Many elderly adults work to maintain good health, but sometimes despite their efforts, they are still debilitated by health and mental health problems including dementia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, delirium, Alzheimer’s disease, that change their ability to care for themselves, the quality of their lives and their way of living. Some elderly who find themselves in this situation have little choice except to rely on their adult children as their caregivers.

Assuming the role of caregiver to a once active and vibrant parent who is now an aging parent that may be afflicted with a serious, chronic or long-term health or mental health condition is sometimes a challenge. This role reversal is emotional, life change and affects the parent, the caregiver and the family.

With more people living longer, becoming a caregiver to a parent is common. In the U.S. there are 65.7 million caregivers that make up 29% of the U.S. adult population providing care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

As both a professional caregiver working with patients and families affected by illness and as a caregiver to several special people in my own life, I have come to personally know the impact of aging and illness on families. When a parent ages or becomes ill, the impact is felt throughout the family system. For those caring for an elderly parent, there are some common issues that affect the entire family:

  • Money. A shift in economic resources to increase support for the aging and ill parent. often households need to be combined or specialized housing that addresses the needs of the aging or ill family member needs to be sought. The cost of healthcare, which may have been a minimal expense previously, may become a primary expense.
  • Relocation. The family or part of the family may need to relocate to access specialized care or to be in closer proximity to caregivers.
  • Roles changes. Physical limitations from aging or illness may mean that tasks previously performed by the ill or aging parent (earning income, cooking, lawn care, family gatherings, child care, etc.) need reassigning or outsourcing.
  • Emotions. The emotional climate of the family can change, especially if the aging or ill parent maintained the “emotional life” of the family. While some family members are bound to have conflict or different ideas about the parent’s condition and how to handle it; this can also be a time of increased closeness and stronger relationships.
  • Social interaction. Sometimes families build a bigger social, support group to meet the increased demands of caring for an aging or ill parent. Sometimes families withdraw from social interactions to conserve their energy for the increased demands of caregiving.
  • Religion and spirituality. The spiritual life of the family may increase in importance as existential issues become a focus.

Family dynamics are also affected by the age and developmental stage of each person in the family as well as the relationship and attachment an individual has with the aging or ill parent. This is a major factor in how the parent responds to caregiving and the caregiver.

A few steps families can take to help make the caregiving transition easier:

  • Communicate clearly with aging or ill parents as well as the family to make the decision to assume the responsibility as caregiver.
  • Allow aging parents to make daily decisions whenever possible especially since the loss of independence and decision making can be scary or depressing for them.
  • Keep aging or ill parents in the loop by discussing medical decisions, and every day issues and solutions.
  • Maintain the child-parent dynamic by asking for advice, even while they are helped by a caregiver.
  • Ask for help from siblings, medical providers and even hospice care.
  • Talk with a parent’s physician(s) to create a plan for medical care that you can follow and share with an aging parent and other caregivers so that everyone understands how the doctor wants to proceed medically.
  • Be realistic about the extent of your patience, abilities and other responsibilities.
  • Be good to yourself. You are an everyday hero on the hero’s journey. Asking for help when the stress gets to be too much is not a sign of weakness. Caring for a senior loved one is likely to cause emotional and physical stress. Take a break, rest, eat well, keep medical appointments, get some exercise and take time to meditate.

Families and individuals that are caring for an elderly parent are in a challenging position. It is recommended at any stage of caregiving to include the assistance of a licensed counseling professional. This can help families and their parent prepare for and manage the emotions, changes and wellness that caregiving can bring.

KRIS KERLIN, M.A. LPC-S is the founder of the Center for Stress Management and a volunteer counselor with the Pro Bono Counseling Program at Mental Health America of Greater Houston. She specializes in helping people manage the emotional and lifestyle impact of having a physical illness. In addition to working with patients living with chronic pain and cancer she has also helped caregivers and family members of those managing illnesses.