Over 40 million people in the United States are caring for someone over the age of 50, usually an aging parent or relative. I’m one of them. And what I’ve learned is that, while we’ve made some great strides in elder care, we still have a long way to go. In many ways, elder care is a silent issue in our society, and in our workplaces. As anyone who’s done it knows, elder care is a difficult and often exhausting experience. It’s also one that an increasing number of people are going through – or soon will be. And yet we don’t really talk about elder care or make accommodations for it, the same way we do, say, childcare (which isn’t to minimize the challenges parents have been going through!). In just sharing my experience with colleagues and friends, I’ve been shocked by the number of people who’ve responded with something like “I’m going through the same thing, but I’ve been afraid to talk about it!” So that’s what I want to do – talk about elder care and ways to make it a better experience for all of us.
First, in the spirit of the proceedings, I’ll share my own story. On October 25th, 2021, my father passed away unexpectedly. At the time, he was the primary caregiver for my mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about two years before the pandemic began. My parents had been married for 57 years, and even before my mother’s Alzheimer’s began to progress, they were incredibly dependent on one another. When my father suddenly died, my two sisters and I were suddenly scrambling to set up a system of care for my mother. For several months, until we could find her the right assisted living facility, one of us had to be with her 24 hours a day. And this was on top of winding down my father’s life. Like many people taking care of a parent, we found ourselves simultaneously grieving for one parent while also realizing that, in many ways, we’d lost the other one, too.
Of course, everybody’s story is different, but many of the challenges of elder care are universal. And by talking more about it, we can begin to bring elder care out of the shadows and create a more open system of mutual support. So to start off, here are seven lessons I’ve learned about elder care.
Talk about it before you have to talk about it
When I asked the executive director of my mother’s assisted living facility what his advice was, he didn’t hesitate: “talk about this with your parent beforehand.” That means discussing with your parents what they have in place already, and what their wishes and desires are for how they want to be cared for. It might feel awkward, but believe me, it’s preferable to figuring it all out on the fly when you’re suddenly thrown into it.
Let yourself grieve
Even if your entry into elder care doesn’t involve the death of a parent, there’s still a likelihood it will entail a profound shift in your relationship with the parent you’re caring for. Give yourself permission to acknowledge that some of the strong emotions you’re feeling are tied to grief and the loss of the parent-child relationship you’ve known all your life. They once cared for you, and now you’re caring for them.
Become a scheduler
Creating a plan and carving out space each day allows you time to be the coordinator and advocate that caregiving often requires. For me that goes something like, here are the three things I need to advocate for my mom’s care today, I’m going to follow up with this person, I’m going to make this appointment. So even if you’re not adept at scheduling, it’s definitely a new skill to lean into.
Take care of yourself, too – and reject the guilt
When taking care of someone else, you have to remember to also take care of yourself. You’ll be much more effective at all your responsibilities when you do. Also, as I’ve learned, there’s a lot of guilt that comes with caregiving, and there’s a tendency to constantly be asking ourselves, am I doing enough? But part of self-care means realizing that we can only do our best.
Reach out — to friends or professionals
In my experience, it’s very easy to let our social connections get lost in elder care, which can make it even more lonely and isolating. Sometimes that’s because friends know you’re going through a lot and don’t want to create an extra burden. But when people say, “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” most of them mean it. So reach out and keep those social connections – it’s an essential part of mental well-being. And if you’re a friend of someone who’s caring for an elderly loved one, instead of just assuming they need their space, connect and ask them what they need.
Also – important to note as we mark the end of Mental Health Awareness Month – elder care is often emotionally overwhelming and mentally exhausting. If you’re struggling, reach out not only to friends but to mental health professionals. So many caregivers suffer in silence, but help is out there.
Seek out company resources – and be a resource for others
In addition to talking to your parents about their wishes, find out what resources your organization has, and make sure others understand these resources are available within your organization. At Deloitte, we’re provided with leave and care options for family caregiving. On several occasions, people have reminded me these are available, which I appreciated. I ended up not taking leave (so far), because it helps me with my mental health to stay engaged with work – and I’m fortunate enough to have a great team who are helping make that possible. It’s also been nice to hear from a few colleagues that being open about my story has given them permission to do the same.
Find joy and gratitude
Sometimes there are so many details that need to get taken care of that they overwhelm everything else, including your relationship with the loved one you’re caring for. So, even amidst all the stress, remember to find joy. If possible, this can mean doing activities, even limited versions of them, that the two of you used to enjoy together, whether it’s cooking or going for a walk. Or it can even mean just finding joy in small moments. For me, even though my mother’s care has become more stabilized, I never know what the day is going to bring — so I’m grateful for days that simply go relatively crisis-free.
There’s no getting around it – elder care is hard. It’s demanding in every possible way – emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially. So if you’re going through it, give yourself some grace, reach out to friends, and don’t forget to take care of yourself as well.
I would like to extend a special thanks to Zack Shaham of The Palace Group for sharing his insights with me for this article.