By Jenn Sturiale
That whole circle-of-life thing isn't just for cartoon lions and gazelles; we humans are bound to it just as firmly. As we get older, so do our parents and other loved ones. Difficult as it is to consider, they may one day need our help -- just as we once needed theirs.
The Rumor: Children should always care for their aging parents
Our relationship with our elders can be complex, and sometimes we still carry the burden of familial resentments long past. Our own lives may be wobbly, too, as we balance kids, work and friends and our own health on top of caregiving tasks. What exactly are our responsibilities toward our aging loved ones, anyway?
The Verdict: We have an innate responsibility to help loved ones as they age, but there are limits
"I'm a big believer that the expectation must be that everyone will one day be a caregiver -- whether it be for your aging parents, a neighbor or a loved one," says Alexis Abramson, Ph.D., lifestyle gerontologist and author of The Caregiver's Survival Handbook: Caring For Your Aging Parents Without Losing Yourself.
We have wildly varying relationships with our parents, and different feelings about taking care of them. Despite our personal histories, though, we have an ethical responsibility to make sure our loved ones are safe, secure and getting the attention they need. Thirty-nine percent of adults in the U.S. are caring for a loved one with significant health issues, so consider yourself part of a large -- and growing -- tribe of caregivers.
"It’s important to understand that feelings of affection aren’t necessary to be a good caregiver," Abramson says. "We can’t simply pick and choose whether we're going to help based on our feelings about [parents'] past behavior. It will certainly be stressful to care for someone who you think was irresponsible and careless, but nonetheless it's part of the journey we call life."
Many people are long-distance caregivers, making doctor appointments and getting test results over the phone, arranging for visiting-nurse services and food deliveries, and managing loved ones' finances online. It's important to make sure, however, that caregiving doesn't come at the expense of our own emotional and physical balance.
Remember: You can't do this alone. You're going to need help. "What we often do -- especially women, who currently make up 73 percent of the over 44 million primary caregivers in the United States -- is take on the martyr role and let other family members and friends off the hook," Abramson observes.
Instead, he advises, treat caregiving as a business. Assign a "CEO" to organize the family team and let each member choose the tasks he or she will manage. Don't hesitate to outsource, either: The National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers is an invaluable resource for shifting some of the caregiving burden from family to trained professionals.
"Caring for an aging loved one is one of the hardest jobs you will ever have," Abramson says. "There will most likely be times when you’ll feel that you just can’t go on." This is when your dedication to taking care of yourself -- aka "caring for the caregiver" -- must remain stronger than ever.
"When your days as a caregiver have ended, you’ll want to look back and know you did the best you could for your parent," Abramson says. "You’ll want to know you made the most of the last days, months and years with your loved one -- surviving the bad times but always remembering to seek out and cherish the good. Just as important, you will want to have a life to return to, filled with people you love, activities that interest you, and the good health to enjoy them."