How to Survive Caregiving for Aging Parents

By Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA

Adult children who are caregivers wonder how to survive caregiving for aging parents. Adult children who are raising their own families, who are working full time, and who are caregiving for aging parents feel overwhelmed because they don’t know how to keep it all together without falling apart. 

Caregiving can be exhausting. Below are tips for how to survive caregiving for aging parents and to improve the balance between caregiving and life.

Caregiving Balance: Combining Male and Female Caregiving Strengths

Men and women approach caregiving differently. By working together and balancing male and female caregiving strengths, it is easier to survive caregiving for aging parents.

Male and female caregivers can learn from the opposite skill set. Assigning projects that are better suited based on individual skills and interests is another way to balance caregiving. Working together helps minimize the feeling that caregiving is a struggle. 

A Team Approach to Caregiving

how to survive caregivingLooking at a caregiving team, for example, as a husband and wife.  As a work team, it may be easier to divide projects and conquer. The actions of planning caregiving tasks rather than responding to caregiving emergencies approaches the role of caregiving from a male perspective.

Male caregiving strengths include a preference for managing tasks, relying on logic over emotion, dependability, and viewing caregiving as a project. Female caregiving strengths include the qualities of being nurturing, compassionate, and attentive to the needs of others.

Male and Female Caregiving Differences

Men are more logical and task oriented. They want to fix things. Caregiving is not something that can be fixed because it extends for years. Time spent in caregiving increases over time.

The health of an aging parent or a spouse, while it may stabilize, will eventually decline. Due to the length of time and the time involved in caregiving, this is why it is important to develop ways to survive caregiving for aging parents.

Because women are compassionate, there are times when too much emotion appears in caregiving situations. Rather than looking at a situation by reviewing the facts, women may focus on emotions and miss important information. Women also take on the majority of the work in caregiving situations because they hesitate to ask for help.

Conquering and Dividing Caregiving Tasks

Knowing these differences is valuable in designing a plan to caregive for aging parents. When spouses agree, care tasks may be divided to survive caregiving for aging parents.

For example, male caregivers may prefer to complete tasks that require management and coordination. These tasks may be calling the insurance company, setting doctor appointments, and scheduling prescription refills. Add to this home repair projects, yard work, and automobile maintenance if an aging parent still drives.

Women caregivers, because they are nurturing, take on more of the 1:1 care tasks like assisting with personal care. Homemaking projects also fall in this area. Grocery shopping, running errands, and housekeeping projects are tasks that women caregivers easily complete as part of their own daily life. I also recommend involving young children in caregiving responsibilities so that the idea of family caregiving is commonly discussed. 

When It’s Okay to Say No to Caregiving

As caregiving tasks and responsibilities increase it is easy for caregivers to say, “i’m tired of being a caregiver.” Women caregivers tend to say yes to all requests in caregiving and in life. Saying no is not a response that comes normally to women but a response that must be learned. Men caregivers find it easier to say no and to delegate tasks.

Because women feel like they can do it all, they quickly become overwhelmed and experience more emotional stress than men. Men remove the emotion from care situations, look at the facts, and then decide on a plan of action.

All caregivers benefit from learning when it’s okay to say no to caregiving. Caregivers who want to do it all may be making aging parents more dependent instead of more independent. Making aging parents more dependent increases caregiving responsibilities over time and results in lower self-esteem and abilities for aging parents.

Say No But, or Yes, But

Busy caregivers can find ways to support participation by aging parents. Grocery shopping is one example. “Yes, I will grocery shop, but you will put the groceries away.” It’s important to notice when caregiving feels like it’s too much so that family conversations may occur. 

Supporting participation in other household tasks, rather than totally taking over the tasks helps aging parents remain more physically active and able. The physical activity of folding laundry and making a bed is good exercise. Women, usually because they can complete these faster, tend to take over which eliminates participation by an aging parent.

Other projects like walking to the curb to get the mail equals exercise. And while you’re walking to get the mail, why not walk around the entire block.

Support independence, rather than fostering dependence. Older adults who are more physically and mentally active have more self-esteem and confidence. When tasks are removed, the purpose in life is lost because activities and daily routines are eliminated.

Volunteering Avoids Isolation

If your aging parent is reasonably healthy? Can he or she volunteer? Social activity helps avoid cognitive decline and a diagnosis of dementia.

Sitting alone at home all day with no set routine or projects to complete results in isolation and loneliness. Isolation results in cognitive decline. Unless your aging parent has a firm daily routine of projects to complete, outside involvement can bring positive energy into days that seem to be never-ending.

Volunteering is a way to gain confidence and self-esteem by helping others. Being involved in projects offers the opportunity to meet new people and to make new friends. The benefits of volunteering are many. Volunteering decreases stress, combats depression, adds a sense of purpose and supports physical health and activity.

While aging parents may scoff at the idea of volunteering and say that they are “retired,” I fully support attempting to gain interest and to try volunteering. Many cities have local organizations like the United Way, AmeriCorps, and Volunteers of America. Many organizations need volunteers in all different areas of operations.

Make an appointment and take your aging parent for the initial meeting. Volunteering supports independence.

When Caregiving and Work Collide – Involve Parents in Helping

In situations where aging parents may have a number of health issues and find it difficult to leave home, support for family caregivers can happen in other ways. When I was young, I lived next door to an elderly lady named Agnes. This was in Omaha so the weather was extreme. Snow in the winter, and hot summers with everything growing including the lawn.

As I shoveled by snow, I shoveled Agnes’ snow. The same for the mowing of the lawn. In spring, Agnes asked me to spray the apple tree growing on the side of my yard.  She enjoyed baking, and this would be a way for her to repay me for shoveling and mowing the lawn.

Agnes baked small apple pies, made applesauce, and apple rhubarb cake and coffee-cake. At the time I was working full time and going to school in the evenings. These treats came in handy on days when I was running from place to place and didn’t have time to cook.

How Aging Parents Can Support Busy Caregivers

This same idea applies to busy caregivers who work and caregive. Time spent in caregiving activities is time not spent on personal activities, interests, or self-care. Talking to aging parents about activities they can still complete that can help family caregivers is a practical and helpful idea. By working together and supporting each other as caregivers, better than average care can be achieved. 

Meals and Nutrition

Meals and nutrition are the first subjects to discuss. Aging adults tell me that they do not like to cook because they are only cooking for one.

Why not ask an aging parent to cook a normal meal and use the left-overs to create lunches or quick meals for family caregivers? This helps support good nutrition for the aging parent and saves adult children caregivers time having to make lunches or cook a meal when pressed for time.

How nice would it be to visit an aging parent and receive a week’s worth of pre-made lunches? Or to visit and have dinner prepared?

The cost of groceries can be shared. Meal planning can occur as an activity that will likely widen the scope of meals that an aging parent would normally eat. The activity of cooking also adds a new project and a routine into the day of aging parents. Rather than sitting and watching television, an aging parent now has a purpose in life.

Other Projects

When caregivers are creative, other projects can be assigned to aging parents. These might include mending, pet sitting to encourage walks, and watching grandchildren so that the caregivers can have a break.

There are many opportunities to involve aging parents in activities that support the caregiver. Caregiving was never meant to be a one-way street, with the caregiving completing all of the work.

Positive Family Relationships

Caregivers tell me that they want positive family relationships. By using the ideas in this article, thoughts of how to survive caregiving for aging parents will ease. Caregiving can be a positive experience. 

Relationships will feel more even as adult children help with caregiving tasks and aging parents have ways to give back.

Inviting aging parents to participate in care supports ongoing physical and mental independence. Volunteering, when possible, has other benefits. Projects that ease time pressure on family caregivers result in a win-win for the entire family.

© 2019 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, CG, CSA is a national caregiving expert, advocate, and speaker who solves caregiving problems. Since 1999, she has been a direct service provider as a court-appointed guardian, power of attorney, and care manager. In response to the need for accessible, accurate, reliable, and trustworthy information Pamela offers online caregiving support and programming to solve caregiving problems, advance healthcare literacy, and promote self-advocacy. She collaborates with professionals in the areas of estate planning, elder law, and probate, financial planning, and healthcare to raise awareness of and sensitivity to family caregiving and healthcare issues.

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