Kenner resident Lisa Brown spends her days preparing meals, taking vital signs, administering medicine, running errands and seeing that her 86-year-old mother, Theresa Donovan, who lives in her own home a mile away, is comfortable and well-loved. Hospice care provides weekly visits, and Brown's siblings give her a few hours of relief on the weekends, but as the primary caregiver, Brown is on call around the clock.
As the population ages, an increasing number of adult children are facing situations similar to Brown's.
"People are living longer, and that means our parents can be with us longer, but it also presents new challenges," says Lisa Rabito, owner of a local Home Instead Senior Care franchise. "It's our time to give back, but most of our generation is working, whereas many of our mothers didn't. If the adult child is so stressed that they fall ill, you have two generations in need. It's crucial that caregivers take care of themselves. It's a necessity, not a luxury."
Caregivers can maintain the balance they need by determining the level of care they can provide and the help they require. Agencies can provide services like cooking, housekeeping, bathing, dispensing medications and running errands, which can be vital for senior citizens who wish to remain in their homes.
"A lot of people choose to keep their parents at home, whether it's (because of) a promise that they made to their parents or a request that their parents made of them," says Bobby Hoerner, director of social services at Woldenberg Village, a West Bank retirement community with independent living, assisted living and nursing home facilities.
When deciding whether aging parents should remain at home, Hoerner says caregivers should consider their parent's cognitive level, the amount of medications prescribed and whether help is needed managing them, whether the parent is disabled or bedridden, and whether the adult child has family members who can help with caregiving.
Some senior citizens might need only occasional assistance. "Twenty-four hour in-home care is more expensive than assisted living," Rabito says. "But most people don't need 24 hours. And five or six hours a day (of in-home care) is cheaper than assisted living."
Hoerner and Rabito say the expense of in-home care can be a concern for people who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. Aging parents may feel uncomfortable asking for help or think they do not need it. As a result, their children intervene, and the role reversal can cause stress for both generations. Parents may experience financial worries, concerns about being a burden and sadness over the loss of their independence. Adult children may experience sadness over the loss of the normal parent-child relationship, guilt over having to limit the parent's independence, and physical stress when trying to manage multiple responsibilities.
Symptoms of caregiver stress include sleeplessness, weight loss or gain, irritability and a lack of time spent with significant others. Resources for coping with stress range from websites like www.caregiverstress.com to local support groups offered by nursing homes and hospitals, including an Alzheimer's support group that meets at Woldenberg Village on the second Thursday of every month.
"There's a real empowerment in knowing you're not by yourself," Hoerner says. Dr. Vernilyn Juan, a physician specializing in family and geriatric medicine at Touro, emphasizes the importance of healthy living (exercise, eating well, no smoking) and frequent restorative breaks, especially for families of elderly patients who are homebound or have dementia.
"Sometimes going to the salon or getting a massage is relief for the overwhelming responsibilities of taking care of your parents," she says. "You're trying to give back, but you can't always be Superwoman. You'll have more quality time with them if you take care of yourself."
This January, Brown will receive some much needed downtime. Home Instead awarded her a six-day Caribbean cruise in honor of her selflessness. "They showed up at the door with balloons and it looked like Publishers Clearing House," says Brown, whose daughter wrote a heartfelt essay nominating her for the 2011 Caregiver Cruise Giveaway contest.
For Brown, whose mother raised 10 children, worked as a registered nurse and was a charitable member of her community for many years, the rewards of giving back outweigh the sacrifices. "It's a huge commitment," Brown acknowledges. "But it's been very comforting to spend this time with her. She touched a lot of people's lives and has done a lot of good and she deserves to be taken care of. It's the least I can do for her."