You started out by driving Mom to her doctor’s appointments. Then you helped out by doing her grocery shopping, cooking a few meals, and assisting with medication management. As your mom’s health declined, you gradually found yourself cleaning her house, doing her laundry, and handling her finances. Without realizing it, you’ve become your parent’s primary caregiver—and it happened more by accident than by choice.
Pamela Wilson, MS, BS/BA, CG, CSA, a leading expert in the caregiving industry and author of The Caregiving Trap: Solutions for Life’s Unexpected Changes®, has seen the above scenario play out for a number of families.
“A lot of times, it’s begins with something innocent,” explains Wilson, who provides support to family and professional caregivers through her two businesses, The Care Navigator and The Caring Generation. “The parent isn’t feeling well, so they ask their adult child, ‘Can you go to the pharmacy to pick up my prescription?’”
Mom or Dad call with more requests, which their adult children feel obligated to fulfill. It becomes a repetitive cycle. “And before you know it, caring for your parent becomes the new normal,” Wilson reports.
Assumed Assisted Living
Oftentimes, adult children are performing caregiving tasks that might otherwise be offered from a professional provider. “I call it assumed assisted living,” Wilson says, “because in many cases, many of these parents could not live in their present situation without their children’s help.”
The present situation might be a private residence, with the parent relying on one or more adult children as an alternative to hiring an in-home caregiver or moving into assisted living. In other scenarios, the parents might have moved to independent living or assisted living.
“But they’re still asking their kids for help, with the hope that it will keep them from having to move into memory care or skilled nursing,” Wilson explains.
In many instances, the commitment to caregiving becomes more than the adult children can handle, but they’ve become trapped in the role without a viable way out.
“I can’t tell you how many phone calls I get from adult children who are in this situation and they don’t know how to backtrack,” Wilson explains. “They don’t know how to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ They feel stuck, and they also feel guilty because they don’t want to tell their parents no.”
Unfortunately, the inability to say no can take a toll on the accidental caregiver. Caregiving becomes time-consuming and stressful, and it often puts a strain on the caregiver’s marriage, family life, social life, and/or work situation. That’s why it’s so important for family caregivers to set boundaries.
There are no hard-and-fast rules on where you set those boundaries, since everybody’s situation is different. “Some people have constraints on what they can and cannot do,” Wilson says. “Some are able to leave work to take their parent to a doctor’s appointment, and others are not. If your parent needs you for a doctor’s appointment during the week, it might be necessary to tell them, ‘I’m not available to take you Monday through Friday, so I believe we should hire a care manager or somebody else who can do this because attending the appointment is important to your medical care.’”
Similarly, if your parent needs help with grocery shopping or laundry, you can arrange to do that on a weekend when it won’t conflict with your work schedule.
Setting boundaries also means not feeling guilty that you can’t give more and more of yourself as your parent ages. Adult children feel they have to rearrange their lives to accommodate whatever assistance their parent requires. However, this is not always practical—nor is it reasonable to expect adult children to put all of their needs aside for those of their parents.
“What we have seen happening—and statistically it’s mostly women—is that adult children will quit their jobs to take care of parents,” Wilson says. “Or in some cases they’ll cut their hours back to part-time. However, they should keep in mind that giving up their job affects their retirement income, and they’ll have to worry about who’s going to take care of them when they get older. So, I think it’s a fair conversation to say, ‘I’m sorry, Mom or Dad, but I can’t quit my job to take care of you. It’s going to place me at a financial disadvantage down the road, so we really do need to come up with another solution.’”
The solutions for your parent can be any number of alternatives to family caregiving, such as professional in-home care, assistance from volunteer organizations, or a move to independent or assisted living. It’s best to discuss alternatives for caregiving before your parent’s health starts to decline. Among the topics on the table might be a discussion of long-term care insurance and selling the home on an agreed-upon timetable to finance a move into senior living.
In addition, you can turn to the help of an outside party such as The Care Navigator, which can facilitate discussions, serve as a care manager, and hire professional care agencies that can meet the needs of your parent and relieve the burden of caregiving for family members.
Having an adaptable plan is an important part of the caregiving discussion, Wilson says. “I always tell families to look at where they are today and where they are going to be 18 months from now—and also consider where they might be in 36 months. So, it’s something of a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C situation. You can all agree, ‘Right now, we’re in Plan A, but when things change, we may need to look at Plan B. And when Plan B is no longer viable, we’ll have to look at Plan C.’ That way, you don’t find yourself in a crisis mode where you have to make decisions at the last minute.”
By having a plan that considers all contingencies, families will be more prepared to deal with changing circumstances—and the adult children are less likely to find themselves in the position of becoming an accidental caregiver.
CHIME IN: Have you become an accidental caregiver for your parent? What do you feel are some of the solutions?