A friend is 83 years old and his eyes are beginning to fail him. He refuses to stop driving even though we’ve suggested that he’s no longer safe on the road. A month ago, as he was driving to the drugstore to pick up some medicine, he drove through a stop sign and nearly struck a pedestrian. After a chat with the family doctor, his license was suspended. Now, family members find themselves driving him everywhere. It’s really-time consuming, and he’s not happy.
Eldercare and its inherent responsibilities are the new facts of life for the invincible baby boomers. For 70 per cent of Canadians aged 30-60 today, looking after a parent is a reality – many of our elders are living approximately one-third longer than previous generations.1 Many social researchers predict that caring for family members will be one of the most significant issues affecting family life over the next few decades. For so many individuals, their parents’ and their own golden years will arrive like a storm, bringing inherent disruptions to daily life and work. This need not be the case. A sudden crisis and the need for emergency planning will rack up financial and emotional costs quite quickly. The solution? Early research and planning for both short and long-term eldercare needs. In the end, some sons and daughters decide to leave work and stay home to provide care. Others hire outside help. Each situation is as different as the people involved.
Accepting the challenge
Whether its roll-up-your-sleeves daily care or long-distance hands-off management, each family’s eldercare situation will be different. If we choose to care, the common factor is that daily life becomes harder to juggle. However, with the right approach, it is possible to find joy in caregiving and still enjoy time spent with older loved ones. Learning the ropes and navigating through health, rehab and lifestyle options will become an adult child’s new pastime–and, unfortunately, their stress barometer.
Caring at home
Most older adults prefer to remain at home alone, yet their ability to be independent and the type of assistance they need, and agree to, will change over time. Assessing a senior’s needs can be a hard and subjective task, especially when the older person resists care. Nonetheless, examining activity levels and watching for poor eating habits, declining mobility, forgetfulness or poor personal hygiene are good places to start. For example, what happens if a neighbour living alone falls? In this case, encouraging the person to obtain a personal emergency response system (PERS), which can be programmed to call for help in the case of a fall or another emergency, can be a lifesaver.
“Are they living ‘at risk’?”
When assessing, a caregiver can ask, “Is your elder able to answer the door, stay alone, or manage cooking, shopping or driving?” Is the senior unsteady on his or her feet and reluctant to use a walker? Is forgetting to turn off the stove or lock the door an issue? Sometimes a simple solution, such as a home-support worker to help Mom with bathing or to drive Dad to the doctor can be helpful. Other times, a referral to an adult daycare program will be needed. Each province and territory has a home-care program that can be accessed through the family doctor, and this is a good place to start looking for help.
Occupational therapists are another great resource for evaluating home safety. (Remember, most falls occur in the bathroom.) And geriatric care managers (often privately paid), social workers and hospital discharge planners are others sources of knowledge and referrals.
As the number of us reaching the age of 65 will more than double over the next 20 years,2 there will be increased absenteeism for family reasons and higher levels of personal stress at work. Employers will worry that we’ll come to work with our parents’ needs on our mind or face on-the-job interruptions with calls from elders. We’ll need time off for caregiving and for our own medical conditions related to caregiver fatigue and depression. To keep working well, we’ll need to find ways to ask for employment packages with accommodations that will allow us to care while staying on the payroll.3
Staying on the job
Fortunately, many employers are recognizing the value of keeping skilled employees on the job. (Providing for family caregivers is an emerging trend in the workplace.) Ideas that have worked well are lunch-and-learn sessions on eldercare and caregiving, and the formation of caregiver support groups at work. Some innovative companies have even opened adult daycare centres where employees can drop off their parents for the day, just like they do with their children.
There’s much at stake as families land in what’s called the “eldercare gap”: The white space where we struggle and need help. In crisis mode, the downtime and instability are costly, and quality of care may be compromised. In stable mode, long-term care for parents over time includes the risk of burnout, resignation and on-the-job personal injury. To avoid burnout, eat well and get physically active. By building your physical and emotional strength, you’ll be strong and clearheaded enough to battle negative thoughts and to be able to take charge. Find ways to think ahead, scout out available resources, and recognize and understand your elder’s wishes. The caregiving journey – and your family life – will be that much smoother.