older caregiversAfter shoulder surgery four years ago, the 93-year-old dad of a friend of mine started showing signs of dementia. With each passing year, his condition has grown a little worse, but through it all, his wife, who is 88 years old herself, has taken care of his every need. She’s even hung in there on the days when he thinks she’s just “the girl from down the street.”

The situation

While an 88-year-old caring for a 93-year-old sounds pretty extraordinary, it’s not all that unusual these days. According to the 2010 census, the population between the ages of 85 and 94 is growing faster than any other age group in the U.S. And with more people living into their late 80s and 90s, it follows that their caregivers, who are typically their spouses, siblings and children, are a whole lot older, too.

At any age, caring for a loved one can certainly take its toll. However, when you have health issues and limitations of your own, this responsibility can be particularly daunting!

The emotional and physical demands

About half of these older caregivers are live-in, which means they are “on duty” 24/7. Not only does that translate into almost zero downtime for them during the day, but they could also be robbed of their desperately needed sleep at night, getting up multiple times to take care of their loved one’s needs. My friend, who is in her mid-60s, checks in on her parents several times a week and will frequently take her dad to get a hotdog or to run errands, just to give her mom a couple hours of quiet time.

But the caregiver role isn’t just emotionally draining. It’s also physically demanding, including continuous back-and-forth trips to bring meals, medication, etc.; acting as a support for someone who is unsteady on their feet; and even lifting and transferring a loved one who is immobile.

The outcome

This day-in and day-out responsibility can have a snowball effect and result in caregivers experiencing health issues of their own. Existing problems, such as arthritic joints, can be exacerbated, or in my friend’s scenario, new conditions can present themselves. Her mom suffered a “silent heart attack” from a weakened heart muscle, which she’d never had a problem with before.

The solution

While most of these older caregivers say they wouldn’t have it any other way—often spurning help when it’s offered—shouldering the responsibility all on their own isn’t a wise strategy. If they get sick and can no longer care for their loved one, they both pay the price.

When my friend’s mom was told she needed to slow down and get some rest to take care of her heart, she hired a homecare aide one morning a week to help her husband shower and keep him company. Other families take their loved ones to adult day care a few days a week or split up the load with other family members. There are also facilities that provide respite care when primary caregivers need to get away for a few days or simply want a day or two to themselves at home.

Whatever the arrangement, it’s important to accept help—even ask for it. When you go it alone, no one wins! Find more information.

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