Years ago when my grandmother was dying — a process that seemed to consume her for a very long time — her children took turns having their semi-invalid mother live with them for a period of months. Grandmother was not an easy patient. She spent most of her days talking about how everyone she loved was dead — which used to make me wonder where my sisters, my long-suffering mother and I stood with her. But Grandmother’s decline was before technology complicated such events, and pretty much all that was needed was to put a borrowed bed somewhere, try to keep her comfortable and entertained and call the doctor if she needed anything. Most of her six children had at least one at-home family member who could handle Grandmother’s care for a few months without straining the family budget or everyone’s patience and good humor.
Caring for aging family members today is not so simple. Few families have a stay-at-home member able to juggle regular routine with patient care, such care now often calls for high-tech equipment and/or high-cost drugs and interventions, and doctors don’t make house calls every other night.
In an informative and enlightening ‘Encore’ feature, Wall Street Journal writer Anne Tergesen follows the adventures of several families wherein siblings have become caregivers to aging parents.
Family cohesiveness is a tall order at any time of life. But as parents grow frail, brothers and sisters often encounter new obstacles to togetherness—at precisely the time they most need to rely on one another. Sibling rivalry can emerge or intensify as adult children vie, one last time, for a parent’s love or financial support. And even as parents grow dependent on children, the desire to cling to old, familiar roles can create a dysfunctional mess.
Today, with the economy and household finances in disrepair, such strains are more pronounced. According to a recent report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, about 43.5 million Americans look after someone 50 or older, 28% more than in 2004. In comparison with 2004, a smaller percentage—41% versus 46%—are hiring help. And more—70% versus 59%—are reaching out to unpaid help, such as family and friends.
Experts say it’s crucial that families figure out ways to work together, to work through their differences, for the common goal of caring for a parent. If they don’t, their parents will suffer—and so will they.
“Family caregivers are the backbone of the long-term-care system in this country,” says Francine Russo, author of a new book about how siblings can cope with aging parents, “They’re Your Parents, Too!” Siblings who work together, she adds, can help preserve not just one another’s health and sanity but also a “last link to their first family.”
There is, fortunately, a lot of support for family caregivers, through sources listed above, the Family Caregiver Alliance and other local or national groups. There are also helpful tips, many of which are outlined in Tergesen’s article: use new technologies, seek help, be flexible, keep lists, and laugh a lot.
The latter was what saved my family from collapse during Grandmother’s stays in our home. Grandmother would today be easily identified as clinically, chronically, severely depressed. My sister Mimi and I devised a game, after the first few days of jockeying for position as the one not to have to spend the afternoon with Grandmother. Whoever came up with the most hilarious joke to tell and see if we could make her laugh, or the most bizarre question (“Did Uncle James really go to jail, like we’ve heard?”) to prompt a family story, would win. I don’t know if this technique has real merit but it worked for us. We laughed a great deal, and Grandmother got to tell a LOT of previously untold family stories. Some of them were even true.