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The 5 truths those caring for their elders need to hear

Ah, the hats. You wear so many. In fact, you wear so many hats that it’s likely that...

By Allie Mazza

Allie Mazza is the owner and founder of Brandywine Concierge Senior Services. Since 2010, Allie has been working in the Senior Care industry, and like many, is continually inspired by the families she gets to serve. Allie started as a caregiver, and has since worked in the in-home care arena, and extensively in the senior living community setting. After spending years selling senior communities, Allie decided she wanted to build a business that would better allow her to serve families.

Allie has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in communication studies. She has worked in the industry in various roles including Life Enrichment as well as Sales and Marketing. Pulling from this experience, Allie is able to create custom solutions for her clients and their families that focus not only on quality of life, but also on making long term care and financially sustainable decisions.

Allie loves what she does, but even more than that, she loves who she does it for. She is lucky enough to go to work in people's homes and help them design and craft lives that are meaningful, empowering, and exciting. She gets to solve problems, build solutions, and open doorways. Not to mention the fact that she gets to meet so many amazing families.

You wear so many. In fact, you wear so many hats that it’s likely that the one labeled “adult daughter” or “adult son” didn’t even cross your mind. It did sneak up on top of your head gradually, in the form of the occasional missing detail that you noticed when you were on the phone with your mom, or the couple of times you found expired milk in her fridge. Then, before you know it you are paying bills, managing doctors’ appointments, and doing grocery shopping not just for the family under your roof, but also for your parent. You, my friend, are an “adult child”- and if you are also caring for children at home, you’re not only wearing the adult child hat, but you’re assuming the identity of a “sandwich generation” adult child. Add it to your resume, paste it into your email signature, and add the “AD” or “AS” after your name, because it is a full-time job, and likely one that you never signed up for and maybe didn’t even realize you had become.

So now that we’ve dusted off the hat and come to the realization that this is a role you occupy, can we talk about the balance? Because if you’re doing it smoothly, without feeling completely stressed, burnt out, or overwhelmed, you are likely in denial, or possibly some sort of superhuman. For the rest of us, finding a balance with this role can be trickier than others because it comes with a lot of other components.

For instance, many adult daughters and sons describe a type of role reversal where now they almost feel as though they are parents to the adults who raised them. Similarly, with the reversal comes the issue of preserving dignity for your parent and your relationship. It’s likely that your mom doesn’t want to have her adult child care for her, help her in the bathroom, or take over her bills. If you do end up taking on these things, you’re trying to maintain the respect for your parent while also taking on the responsibility. That is tough. Really tough. Say you bring in or seek out help - now you may have some guilt (we’ll get to that later) about not doing it yourself, right?

Perhaps you realize that you need to care for yourself, but the to-do list feels too long and you constantly find yourself prioritizing others, or maybe you are so overwhelmed that it has paralyzed you and you’re not sure where to even start. I hear you, and as someone who works with primarily the adult daughter and adult son crowd, I am here to tell you that you are not alone, and there is hope finding balance. Read on for five big truth-bombs that will help you refocus and get back to what’s important.

1. Unless you work in senior care, you are not an expert, and no one expects you to be.

Believe it or not, senior care (despite my most diligent efforts) is not seen as a sexy dinner party conversation in most circles. In fact, most of the time you won’t discuss it until you need it for someone in your life, which really is later than we’d like. Unfortunately, this means that we aren’t talking about a whole part of our lives that is really important to talk about.

In a perfect world, every family would have had a frank, pleasant conversation about their wishes and expectations. However, that is hardly ever the case, and even for those families who have had that conversation, often the goals that their loved ones have, are no longer reasonable either due to acuity, physical care needs, or financial restrictions. If you find yourself in the position where it now falls on you to figure out next steps for a loved one, or to navigate the options, know that there are resources to help, and you do not have to go it alone. No one - not your loved one, not your siblings, and not those of us who do this professionally, expect you to know or understand all the details and intricacies of the healthcare system as it relates to older adults. Your job is to ask questions, and to ask for help when you need it.

Important people and resources to include may be social workers, ombudsmen, care managers, or even someone like me (read my bio - I can help you with this process for free, anytime). All of us are in this line of work to be resources, and though I can’t speak for my colleagues, we are always willing to help, regardless of whether we stand to make a profit.

2. Keep in mind the things that you can control, and work hard to maintain those.

Here’s the short list: attitude, language, availability.

Your attitude is the single most important thing you can control that will directly help your loved one. You will be setting the tone for this next chapter of their life, so if you have a “you don’t have a choice” attitude, your loved one will likely not be as optimistic as if you have a “you’re still able to make choices” attitude. As an example, consider the duty of finding and moving your loved one to a senior community (my specialty). I’ve worked with clients who have a limiting attitude and those who have an attitude of opportunity, and the way they frame the move is totally different, regardless of the circumstances. Those who see the move as an unfortunate step that means less control and autonomy will very rarely get buy-in from their loved one. On the other hand, those who see the move as an opportunity for their loved one to make friends, try new things, and safely maintain their independence often have an easier time with the transition.

If your attitude is your why, your language is your how. How you speak about things matters. Using the same example, I often coach my clients on simple language swaps that help frame the move as a positive for them and their family member. In addition to the basic “community, not facility”, saying things like “boy, I’d love to have a space like this” or “wow, this is an incredible place”, or even “I am so excited for us to come hang out here with you” make such an impact. Set the tone continuously with positive, opportunity focused language.

Your availability is not equal to your accessibility. Instead, it means how present you are. You do not need to be accessible 24/7 to your loved one. If the best you can do is 4 hours a week, that is completely fine, but make sure that when you are available you are present. Quality over quantity. If you find you’re spending hours managing things for your loved one, you are no longer just a daughter or son, you are a care manager. If you can afford to, delegate that role or seek out other resources like free legal and tax services that can help you reclaim your time.

3. Difficult conversations are difficult. It’s not a sign that you’re doing something wrong, it’s a sign that you’re doing something right.

I often spend time coaching my clients on how to have difficult conversations with their loved ones (taking away the keys, bringing in care, etc). My number one piece of advice to all my clients is to assume they have a plan, ask them what the plan is, and see what happens. The reason I tell my clients to approach these conversations this way is because it maintains dignity and autonomy, but also forces them to face the situation. Occasionally they do have a plan, but often they don’t. The question “Dad, what do you want us to do if one day it becomes unsafe for you to drive?” puts the ball in his court, tells you exactly how he wants you to handle it, and doesn’t rob him of his dignity.

You have to remember too that even when you do everything right, these are still tough conversations, and that’s a sign that you’re doing something right.

4. Utilizing resources available makes you a BETTER daughter or son.

I’m not calling us martyrs, but sometimes us adult daughters and sons have a tendency to think we should do it all without help. So often, my clients who are looking to either bring in care or help their loved one’s transition to a senior community feel guilt that they aren’t going to be providing the care themselves. Don’t be so hard on yourself! First of all, I’m willing to bet that you and your loved one do not want you to be the one providing the care. I know when I am 85 and need assistance in the bathroom, I want a nurse, not my daughter or son, to be the one helping me. And I’m sure that feeling would be mutual.

On the topic of senior living communities, I’ve also had clients who feel as though they’re doing a disservice by taking their loved one from their home. I try my best to help them see that living in a senior living community is one of the best opportunities for reinvention, connection, and quality care. So, in fact, it’s one of the best gifts you can give your loved one.

5. You are no good to anyone if you’re not first good to yourself.

If you’re an adult child who has read one too many self-help books like me, you know about Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (aff. link). You can find a blog on my website about how all of these are related to caregiving, but I think the most important one is “sharpen the saw.” Being a caregiver is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult job there is. Another person’s needs determine your entire day, your whole focus, and a huge piece of your heart. You give all of yourself to the other person, and you often forget that if you don’t take care of yourself, you will never be able to take care of anyone else. That is really important, and very hard to truly embrace, so I would invite you to write that someplace and say it over and over. A good adult child is one that understands that they are a human with needs and limits, just like the person they are caring for. To be effective you MUST take time for yourself. You wouldn’t expect a dull saw to cut down a tree effectively, and you can’t expect yourself to be effective as a caregiver if you don’t take the time you need to stay sharp.

So, there they are. Five truths that are hard to accept, but necessary in order to find balance. There are a few things in life that you get no preparation for and only one shot, and those things can feel so heavy that it’s hard to get started or impossible to stop. I encourage you to breathe, invite in a little imperfection and grace, and remind yourself that you’re doing your best, which is even more than you need. So, straighten your hat and take a quick glance in the mirror to see how good it looks on you.

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