British Columbia

Caring for elderly parents takes toll on caregivers: author

Richard Johnson, author of Caring for Aging Parents: Straight Answers That Help You Serve Their Needs Without Ignoring Your Own, chatted with Stephen Quinn of On The Coast about balancing the needs of elderly loved ones with your own needs.

Adult children are being recruited as caregivers for parents more often. How does this affect them?

Richard Johnson says about 75 per cent of households will provide elder care at some point. That burden largely is falling to women, and the increased responsibility can be difficult for elderly parents and their children. (Terry Vine/Getty Images/Blend Images)

More people than ever are faced with the prospect of caring for elderly parents as the Canadian population continues to live longer and longer.

One person who's been studying the issue for some time is Richard Johnson. He says that too often the need children have to care for their parents outweighs the need to care for themselves.

The author of Caring for Aging Parents: Straight Answers That Help You Serve Their Needs Without Ignoring Your Own says that balance is the key.

Johnson believes 75 percent of households eventually spend time taking care of their aging parents.

"The real problem here is that people overdo. They take on too much. They make promises they really can't keep, " he said.

Johnson presented his ideas at a Christian-themed conference on aging hosted by St. Mark's College at UBC.

Before that, he stopped in for an interview with On The Coast's Stephen Quinn.

In an interview with On The Coast's Stephen Quinn Johnston explains:

Why don't people understand that if they're not taking care of themselves, they're not much good to the people they're caring for?

Because when we're talking about love relationships, we're really not logical. We want to do more, we get upset about it, we realize we're in over our heads, and then we start doing things that aren't so good for ourselves, our families, and maybe our parents. It boomerangs on us.

So for people whose lives have been taken over by the caregiver role, how do they take their lives back without feeling guilty?

Some of the principles are you can't honour your parents without honouring yourself, we need to understand the real needs of aging parents rather than just their wants.

What do you mean by that?

I had a woman say to me that she spent the whole day driving around the city looking for a button. Her mother lost the button on her favourite sweater, and it had to match perfectly. So she really spent the whole day looking for it and still didn't find it, and she felt guilty about it. I know when I say that it sounds ridiculous, but that's a very small example.

The other thing is we get to become policemen. It's like, 'Mom, you didn't exercise. The doctor says you're supposed to exercise. And you're supposed to take this pill at exactly 3:43 and you didn't do that. Why didn't you do that? And what did you have for lunch?'  We're becoming police persons. And we're doing it for a good cause, but it comes across as criticism, it's invading the relationship, and it's hurting everybody.

What about community support? Some caregivers might still be in the workforce and need to pay their own bills.

Oh yes, some of them are what we call the "sandwich generation." They have their own kids or they're in college or they're trying to get their own families going but they're caught. Some people do leave the workforce, especially women. More care giving is done by women.

So if somebody is considering taking on that caregiver role, what advice would you have for them when it comes to setting boundaries and expectations?

In order to set boundaries, you have to take a step back. That means looking at it as rationally as you can. I used to work in a hospital and I'd see this all the time. The physician would say to the eldest daughter, "Well, your mom looks fine, but of course she can't be alone anymore." And in that moment that woman is enlisted into the army of caregivers and life is never going to be the same. They need help. They need substitutes. We can't do it alone.

This interview has been condensed and edited. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: How to balance caring for elderly parents with caring for yourself


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