The chance that your parents will have a long life is greater than ever before: The average American lives to 79—nearly a decade longer than the previous generation. Happily, this means more years of their love and support. But the reality is that you'll have to address their needs as they grow older.
Some 44 million people in the U.S. (that's about 19 percent of us) are caring for an adult loved one. While there's no question that the role is draining—emotionally, physically, and financially—there is a bright spot. "Caring for Now's the time a parent can be a chance for personal growth and strengthened relationships," says Marion Somers, Ph.D., author of Elder Care Made Easier. Research backs her up: A survey from the National Alliance for Caregiving found that 46 percent of family caregivers say their stress levels are low. And more research shows that those who focus on the positive aspects of their responsibility feel less burdened.
Could this be true? To find out, we spoke to three women who were thrust into the caregiving role. Here's how they coped and came out the other side.
When my mom was diagnosed with dementia three years ago, she was living on her own a few towns over from me in Tennessee. During the next several months, simple tasks— like making coffee and putting on clothes—became difficult for her. Mom could no longer live alone, so I started staying with her for a few hours during the day and at night. But after several weeks, I knew I was in over my head. Besides babysitting my grandsons three days a week, I was also busy with my own home and career. My sister, who works full-time, helped out, but it wasn't enough. So I contacted a local agency and arranged for caregivers to come.
Enter Jessica. The first time we all met, she hugged my mom and told her our plans. I sensed Jessica's kindness and natural ability right away. Of course, I still worried about whether she could be a caring and loving replacement for me, so I called my mother three times a day. Each time, I also chatted with Jessica. We'd discuss how my mom was feeling, what she ate, and who had visited. Jessica and I also talked about ourselves and discovered that our lives were parallel in many ways: We shared the same creative spirit (I'm a painter, and she's a writer) and unique sense of humor.
Before long, it dawned on me that Jessica was taking care of me as much as my mother. This became clear when my mom's kidneys started to fail and her health declined rapidly. It was devastating, but Jessica kept me grounded. She consoled me and helped me to face the inevitable. She also relayed how my mother would often ask how I was doing—a reminder of her love even in the fog of her dementia. When the end was near, Jessica's gentle control of the situation and loving demeanor helped me prepare, and she gave me strength to be with my mother when she took her last breath.
Today, Jessica and I still get together about once a week. We call and text frequently, often sharing our favorite memories of my mother. Jessica was with her for two and a half years, but she'll be my friend forever.
Even in retirement, my mother's schedule was packed: She taught Bible study and was an officer in her retired teacher's association. Mama was so vibrant and sharp that I never thought about her getting sick. But three years ago she had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed.
At 77, my dad was in no position to care for her, and I lived 12 hours away and was entering my final year of teaching before I earned tenure. It was a stressful time, to say the least. But the fact that my father had the foresight to buy long-term care insurance was a huge relief. Their policy covered caregiving costs, which meant my parents didn't have to drain their pensions, savings, and Social Security. And I wasn't forced to relocate them from their home in Alabama to mine in Indiana—something they adamantly didn't want to do.
Instead, my dad, husband, and I hired local caregivers who were the right combination of sensitive, open, and bold. The primary aide helps my mom get around every day, and another assists with household chores and errands. My parents' tight-knit group of friends pitches in, and it's amazing how familiar they've become with my mom's basic routine and the caregivers' schedules. Their community is really my eyes and ears: Friends visit almost daily and give me updates.
It is difficult for me to be so far, but I know that this is the best scenario for everyone. Knowing that a supportive and loving community—created by my parents—is looking out for them puts my mind at ease
In 2003, my mom survived a brain aneurysm. The trauma left her with cognitive disabilities, including forgetfulness and confusion, as well as depression and anxiety. Since I was just 14, my dad took care of my mom, my brother, and me until he got sick himself.
When dad passed away in 2006, I moved in with a friend. Because my mom needed help during her bouts of confusion, she entered an assisted living facility in our hometown of Orange, California. Mom felt like she was tooyoung to live there, but being on her own just worsened her anxiety.
Now, a decade after my mom's aneurysm, I'm fully in charge of her care, and she's at a facility near me in San Jose. It's been a difficult adjustment. My mom understands why I make the decisions, but she has trouble accepting the situation. It's frustrating when she questions my choices, like when I tell her that she can't just hop in a cab without telling anyone where she's going. At the core of our arguments is our struggle to accept our new dynamic: I wish that I could be her child without the responsibility of being her caregiver, as does she.
But I recently had a breakthrough. My mom's doctor looked me in the eye and said, "You need to take care of yourself, so you can take care of your mom." Her words sunk in. I began working with a counselor, who taught me how to step back when my emotions get too intense and to ask for help when I need it. I also realized that while I can't change my mom's impairments, I can change how I react and move forward, humbled by our losses and empowered by our blessings. Over the years, my experience caring for my mother has given me the strength to face anything. Resilience is in my genes. I'm pretty sure I got that from my mom.