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Recognizing the Pitfalls of Providing Eldercare

Understanding the dollar value of what you're providing — for free — is important to your sense of accomplishment. For example, care provided to Alzheimer disease sufferers by their family members would cost about $31,000 to $35,000 a year if that care were purchased from professional service providers.

Eldercare is difficult. Shouldering the work by yourself is like being "it" in the game of tag. If you're lucky or swift, someone else will take his or her turn. Many caregivers remain "it" simply because no one else is within tagging distance or because they don't know how to get anyone else involved in the game. As your elderly person grows ever more frail, your health, sanity, and well-being, as well as that of your immediate family, depends on getting others to pitch in. Anticipating the situations you're likely to encounter can help a lot, too!

Unlike professional caregivers who go home after their shift, you're always "on call," facing some of the following situations:

Handling a resentful spouse and angry children

Every hour spent on caregiving represents an hour you don't have available for family and friends (for example, less time to attend hockey games, less time to help with homework, and perhaps less time to share a hobby or interest with your partner). It's natural for your family members to start to feel cheated, even if they don't admit it.

One solution is to include a spouse and kids in eldercare to enhance their understanding of the demands you face every day. Make it fun. For example, grandchildren love assisting with exercise. They count the repetitions and cheer Grandpa on. Young teenage girls may get a kick out of doing their grandma's nails. Not only does it lighten your load a bit, it helps young people become more compassionate human beings.

Feeling unappreciated by the rest of the family

If you're the one who takes care of most of your elder's needs, others may eventually take your hard work for granted — especially when you do the job so well. Over time, you may begin to feel unappreciated and believe that sacrificing your life is your only option. You may find yourself dwelling on all the things that you're missing because eldercare dominants your days.

Consider joining a support group. Your despair will be met with emotional support and helpful resources and ideas.

Feeling unappreciated by your elder

Family members' lack of appreciation stings, but criticism, complaints, and the lack of gratitude from your elder cuts even deeper! If you're in this situation, you may find yourself visiting less and offering less care, even though the older person needs it as much as ever.

Share your pain with someone close and take an objective look at the situation. If the elder has always been ungrateful, it's unrealistic to expect anything different now. If the oldster is newly unappreciative, cruelly critical, or apathetic, it's her illness making her so.

Confused elderly may be unaware of what you do for them or may misunderstand it. For example, a gentle man endured his mother calling him "monster" every time he tenderly cleaned her and changed her diaper.

Making do with lower future earnings

Eldercare responsibilities lead to stress-related illness, lost time from work, lost career opportunities, and poor productivity on the job — all bound to affect earnings. Approximately one-third to one-half of all caregivers are employed.

Under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, companies with 50 or more employees must allow up to 12 weeks of leave for employees to care for a seriously ill parent or spouse. The leave is unpaid, but your job is secured. If your elder's problem is a time-limited acute illness (heart attack) or condition (broken hip), and you can manage 12 weeks without pay, take advantage of family leave. Ask your boss whether you can take your 12 weeks in small chunks. Ask the Human Resources Department at work for information about family leave, flexible work hours, or job sharing.

Suffering from unemployment

Approximately 12 percent of working caregivers eventually find they have to quit their jobs to provide full-time care. Sometimes the people receiving the care want to make up the lost wages but they don't have the money. Even if they do have the money, an unwritten code says that accepting pay for family care is wrong. A study actually attempted to tally up how much all this free care (to impaired relatives of all ages) would cost if families had to pay for it. They estimated that the services provided each year are worth a whopping $196 billion.

A full accounting of your lost income as well as the cost of care (food, medication, transportation, and formal services) should be on the family conference agenda.

Dealing with feelings of guilt

The bane of eldercare is that no matter how much you do, you always feel that you could have done more. Even worse is the guilt felt when angry words toward the elder occasionally leap from your lips in the frustration and fatigue of the moment.

Be realistic — you can't change your feelings. Nasty feelings are occupational hazards. All caregivers have them! Realize that you're doing the best you can with what's available. Think of unpleasant emotions as clouds that float in and float out. One goes away only to be replaced by another. Your guilt will flow in and out along with other negative and positive feelings.

If you find that sadness and guilt persist, see your doctor. (You may have a treatable depression.)

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