Caring for Elderly Parents: Real-Life Stories

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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. 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.