I knew something was wrong. My aunt could barely walk. Her eyes took on a frightening yellow tinge, and her energy level was almost nonexistent. One evening as I was about to leave to return home I noticed her stumble as she followed me to the door. Before I had a chance to react, my aunt took a tumble head first into the hallway console. Dazed, bruised, and a little disoriented she managed to stand up with my help. After considerable prodding she promised to go see a doctor. One doctor’s visit quickly lead to a battery of tests which all ended in the frightening realization that my aunt had developed a life threatening and debilitating illness.
As her body weakened so did her mind and spirit. It was difficult to watch a once vibrant and independent woman sink into a pit of poor health and self pity. Because I loved her so much nothing she asked me to do was too great. Little did I know that catering to her every need and desire was not only crippling her remaining independence but it was also physically and emotionally wearing me out.
I soon became mother, daughter, sister, spouse, and trusted companion. I represented everything and everyone she needed to survive. Of course, I gladly took on my new roles but quickly realized that my plate was already full serving as a wife, mother, and career woman. There was no task that I was not asked to do. I did everything from making car payments to turning the channel on the TV.
It wasn’t long before my own health began to fail. At first it was little things, like a common cold or back pain. Then it mushroomed into things like pneumonia and exhaustion I truly didn’t mind taking care of her financial obligations, running errands for her, and even sharing my time with her. But, I never seemed to be able to give her everything she needed. The more I gave, the more she required.
I began to resent my aunt for all the impositions I felt she was making of me. This would be compounded by feelings of guilt later. How dare I feel overwhelmed, stressed- out, and resentful. Why, this woman had helped raise me, fed me, clothed me, and been there for me during some of the most difficult times of my life. She consoled me at the death of my parents, helped me plan my wedding, and been present at the birth of all my children. How could I feel this way now, when she needed me most. Besides, this could just have easily been my fate. I believed that I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk to anyone about what I was going through or how I felt. So, I plodded through life like a monotonous robot.
Prayer and our faith in God kept us strong during the months that ensued. Slowly, her health began to improve. After about a year the entire medical community pronounced that she was completely disease free and could go on to live a full and productive life. However, emotionally she was scarred for life. She lost all confidence in herself. Although the doctors all proclaimed her to be a modern day miracle, she refused to do even the simplest of tasks such as taking the wrapper off of a piece of candy or turning the TV off using the remote control. Because I loved and respected her as the matriarch of our family I NEVER said no to any request she made of me. Unknowingly, I was only enabling her to use me as a crutch. In my attempt to help her I only crippled her further. Not only was I not helping my aunt but, I was hurting my family. I was so busy aiding my aunt that I seldom had time for my immediate family. The strain was becoming apparent to everyone.
While doing a little research on the internet on my aunt’s medical condition I ran across an article on caregiver strain. With vivid detail it described the past 12 months of my life. I wasn’t evil. I didn’t secretly hate my aunt. What I was feeling was totally normal. I was just suffering from the strain of being the primary caregiver of my aunt.
Over the next ten years more than 70,000,000 million baby boomers will be entering the retirement sector. Of that number a substantial amount of senior citizens may develop a life changing illness or other life altering situation leaving their children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews as their primary caregiver(s). Here are a few suggestions that will help you or someone you know cope with suddenly becoming the primary caregiver of a loved one.
- Obtain a power of attorney.
- Contact creditors by phone, fax, and/or letter explaining the situation to them.
- Re-direct your loved one’s mail to be sent to your primary residence.
- Check out rehabilitation centers and long term care facilities ASAP, just in case they become necessary.
- Depending on the severity of the situation, recommend to the loved one that they make out a will or place all physical assets in your name, with the stipulation that your loved one maintains a life estate to his or her physical property.
- Help your loved one retain as much of their independence as possible by allowing, even encouraging them to do as many things for themselves as they can. This helps promote self confidence and works wonders for their emotional well being.
- AND last but definitely not least, don’t forget to take time out for yourself. Look for a caregiver support group in your local community or hospital setting. If one isn’t available, talk with the medical staff where your loved one is receiving care about creating one. Join the prayer group at your local house of worship for added support. They will often go by and spend time with your loved one giving you the needed time to regenerate your battery.
In a perfect world I would hope that none of you has to go through my saga of family illness. But the sad reality is that all to many reading this article will experience my story on a personal level in the all to near future. Hopefully you will find some of my suggestions helpful. For those of you who are currently facing this dilemma please remember that you are not alone. Just remember, this too shall pass.