What Dangers Do Family Members of an Aging Person Face?

As a family member ages and that elder’s powers begin to fail, the family relationships surrounding that aging person begin to change rapidly.  The elder’s stress induces responses from other members of the family.

First, for many families comes a dreaded intervention.  One or more family members, usually younger family members, discuss with the failing elder changes that the elder needs to make in caring for herself.  This conversation often includes strategizing immediate care changes, and making a plan for longer term care as the elder’s powers continue to wane.  This conversation can prove difficult, if the elder resists needed changes.  The family relationships sometimes suffer.

Second, as family members begin to step into gaps in the elder’s self-care, stresses build in the life of the caregivers.  Some caregivers attempt to do more than they should.  These over-reaching efforts are especially common with the closest family members, especially the healthier spouse and adult children.  The caregivers may injure themselves physically lifting and moving the elder with poor technique.  Lost sleep may make one vulnerable to illness.  A family caregiver may incur new expenses and obligations.

Third, the caregivers may injure themselves emotionally.  Providing care to an aging family member changes the caregiver’s life and creates new stresses in that person’s own primary relationships.  A daughter who provides care for her father may neglect her own children and spouse.  One may no longer have energy for the self-renewing activities on which the caregiver has long relied.  Some caregivers over-extend themselves.  We see this over-involvement most often in the healthier spouse of the failing elder, who is himself aging.  Taking on too much care for a needy elder can create stress, frustration, and illness in the caregiver, leading to their own illness, injury, resentment, depression, and ultimately, burn-out.  None of this helps the elder in need.  Caregivers must pare their care to the most essential activities, and employ others to fill the gaps.  Respite care (which provides a time where others care for your elder) and elder care teams are options.  The caregiver who neglects self-care puts their elder at risk.  Every caregiver must maintain herself physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Good care requires a healthy caregiver.  One cannot wait until all tasks are completed in a day to do self-care.  One must stop other-directed caregiving to seek self-care renewal activities such as exercising, eating, going to your own doctor or dentist, staying connected to friends, and doing activities you enjoy.  If a caregiver finds herself unable to do these tasks of self-care, that caregiver needs to seek help for herself.  Professional counselors or friends can help a caregiver recognize needed changes.  One can ask other family members to step in to provide care.  You may need to learn to recognize your own stresses and how to cope with them.

Caregivers who fail to care for themselves can become so overwrought that they abuse the vulnerable elder for whom they are caring.  If you find yourself feeling that your elder deserves abuse, you need to remove yourself from the caregiving role and turn that care over to others until you regain perspective.

Caregiving for a vulnerable elder presents real challenges to the well-being of the caregiver.  One should not take these dangers lightly.