Thursday, February 07, 2002

Caring for parents starts with planning

By Shauna Scott Rhone
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is a wake-up call for baby boomers: If you have living parents, now is the time to discuss with them how you will take care of them when they need help.

        Knowing what's available could prevent you from being pressured to find help quickly if a crisis happens.

        At this time of year, many baby boomers are thinking about their aging parents, because they've seen them over the holidays and realized their health was declining. Others have gradually become caregivers, without acknowledging it, and are hesitant to reach out for help.

        “They don't see themselves as caretakers,” says Brigid McLinden-Swartz of Catholic Social Services of Southwestern Ohio, referring to the dilemma of adult children with aging parents. “They say, "I'm just taking care of mom or my husband...' But there are lots of resources out there that can help.”

        One in four adult Americans provides some sort of caregiving to parents or loved ones, Today's Caregiver magazine reports. “We don't know how that number will change in the future, but given the aging of society, it can only increase,” says Gary Barg, the magazine's editor.

        Billie Jones of Hamilton is part of that statistic. When she was admitted to the hospital last February , it was something her daughter, Iris Goins, could see coming.

        “She had gotten forgetful and was acting strange,” says Ms. Goins. “We hated to leave her by herself” at home. Like many seniors, she was determined to maintain her independence, but her declining health was wresting it away.

        To encourage her mother's healthy eating habits, Ms. Goins arranged for Meals on Wheels deliveries. When she came to visit, she found out the food hadn't been touched. By the time she entered the hospital, Ms. Jones had lost a lot of weight. When the hospital released her with a diagnosis of dementia, she went home with her daughter to an uncertain future.

        “They didn't tell me how to take care of her,” Ms. Goins says. At least she had her twenty-plus years of experience as a nursing home worker to give her the basics. Most people don't have that advantage when they're suddenly faced with round-the-clock care of an ailing loved one.

Home for holidays

        A study in 1997 by P.S. Arno estimated the national economic value of informal caregiving to be $196 billion, which is about 18 percent of total national health care spending ($1.1 trillion in 1997).

        Too few recognize their caregiving role early, according to the National Family Caregiver Association. Those who do identify themselves as caregivers are more apt to seek the community support they need to help their loved one — and themselves, according to a recent survey by the group.

        “Especially after the holidays, we get an increase in the number of calls for information about our services,” says Kris Mirrielees of Cincinnati Area Senior Services. “They've spent time with mom or dad and see they can't get around that well anymore and want to know what their options are.

        “Especially for working caregivers, there's so much already on their plate but they don't have to do the work themselves. There are lots of organizations in place to help them in the Greater Cincinnati area.”

        These organizations range from adult day care to caregiver support groups to prevent burnout, the feeling of being overwhelmed with the sudden role reversal of parent and child.

        Ms. Goins enrolled her mother in Hamilton Adult Day Care and shares caregiving duties with her brother, Denny Stines, on alternate weeks. She uses the time mom is away for rejuvenation, running errands or enjoying a leisurely meal at the neighborhood Applebee's with her husband.

        “I don't know how I could do this without my brother's help,” says Ms. Goins, who also gets much-needed support from her husband Tom.

        Because of her family's participation and help, experts say, Ms. Goins is likely to go through her caregiving chores in good mental and physical health.

Accepting the role

        Not all caregivers have a strong network of support. According to a National Family Caregivers Association survey, feelings of isolation and depression occur at higher rates for caregivers than the general population.

        Kay Marshall Strom cared for her disabled husband for a decade. The author of A Caregiver's Survival Guide: How to Stay Healthy When Your Loved One Is Sick (InterVarsity Press; $9.99) says her husband suffered from a disability “that no local agency served because it was so rare.”

        She equates her caregiver's role to being “like a frog sitting in a pot of water on the stove. The pot is getting heated up, but the frog doesn't realize it and he's dead before the water is boiling.”

        Ms. Strom did not identify herself as a caregiver initially. “I did a lot of things wrong,” she says. “The first thing I did wrong was keep my job to myself, telling myself that I could handle it alone.”

        One of her eventual solutions was to make a list of ways people could help her. When someone would say, “If there's anything I can do, please call,” she would whip out her list — which ranged from reading to her husband to cleaning the bathroom or baking a cake.

        “People really do want to help, but they don't know what to do,” Ms. Strom says. “And they can't help you until you realize you need to let them help. Caregivers need help.”

        Under her family's care, Ms. Jones has gained 20 pounds since her hospital stay. She has also resumed some of her self-care, which eases the burden for her caregivers. Her attendance at the Adult Day Care helps her interact with others, and she enjoys joining her daughter for brief shopping trips to Wal-Mart.

        Admitting you are a caregiver is the first big step, respondents to the National Family Caregiver Association survey report. Of those surveyed, 83 percent say accepting the role of caregiver increases confidence when talking to health care professionals about a loved one's care.

        More than 90 percent felt that “preserving your health” is a message that should be told to all family caregivers.

        Knight Ridder News Service contributed to this report.



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