jump to navigation

The Era of Aging Caregivers? July 12, 2015

Posted by ijwoods in Blog+.
Tags: , , ,

Elderly CaregiversAn article caught my attention in the New York Times recently about the aging of non-paid caregivers (More Caregivers are no Spring Chickens) .  A study cited in the article claimed there were as many as 7% non-paid caregivers over the age of 75. That doesn’t sound like many people until you learn there are some  50 million non-paid caregivers in the US. That 7% equates to about 3+ million caregivers over the age of 75. That’s astounding.

I’ve been hearing from a lot of friends and acquaintances about their aging parents still living into their late 80’s to late 90’s. I see a lot of them in Facebook photos together celebrating another 90+ birthday and still looking pretty good. One person employed at my business just lost her uncle who was 108. Despite his age he was very clear about choosing his own cremation urn before passing away and managed to do so just days before going.

It’s no illusion; people are living longer. “Life expectancy has been increasing pretty steadily for the last 50 years or so,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics who released a study on aging in 2014. The question I have to ask after reading that is “what about the quality of life for the elderly?”

Let’s face it, as one gets older things break down. There’s no getting around it. Even though healthy living can slow the process it can’t stop it altogether, ultimately we are overcome. Reports by the National Health Interview Survey and the Health and Retirement Study show that with increased age the quality of health in the aged has not improved. Diabetes alone is now affecting an increasingly greater part of the population especially seniors 65 and older. A whopping 26% have diabetes according to the ADA (diagnosed and undiagnosed). This makes me believe that there’s some serious care giving ahead – if it hasn’t hit us full force already.

With an aging population that’s living longer, it’s logical to conclude that those of us who end up in care giving situations will find ourselves doing it at a more advanced age as well. I can’t help but think of my own experience. I can’t really say it was strenuous for me because I felt as if I were on a mission and was energized in a way I had not experienced before. Plus, I wasn’t really that old (although Millennials may argue that point).  It wasn’t until after Kris’ passing that the emotional and physical strain hit me like a sledge hammer.

Still, even though I had been working out regularly and was in reasonable shape for someone in his 60’s, one day I threw my back out when attempting to move Kris. I was simply lifting her legs. At that time she was down to about 90 pounds, so this wasn’t a strenuous move.  I did my best to ignore the pain, but it was sharp and persisted right up through her last days. Caregiving can get pretty physical.

I can’t imagine how I could have been as attentive as I was if I had in poor health taking loads of medication of my own.  Having hospice services was a major relief in the process, but the nurses don’t come over to your home the entire day. They will come to check in once a day and stay for about an hour. They’ll also come if it’s something important you need help with. Someone will come over several times a week to help clean your loved one, make sure the bed has new sheets and so on. Other services require finding a good person or organization, which costs extra. Outside of the hospice, finding the right people is hard.

For this reason, and many other, some insist that it’s best to put our loved ones into a physical hospice or nursing home where they can receive round the clock care by professionals. But what do you do when the person dying is very clear on how they want to spend their last days – and it’s not in some facility, but at home with family and in familiar surroundings? How much are we going to let go of our normal day to day activities to allow them to fulfill their wishes?  Going that route may not be the easiest path, and may even seem impossible, but it is certainly very satisfying in the end.

If you are finding yourself torn by having to decide such a thing you may want to read Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, written by Dr. Atul Gawande.  It is by far the best book I’ve read on End-Of-Life care. It’s one of those books I wish I had read while Kris was alive. Gawande focuses on the quality of life we can offer our loved ones as they are winding down and presents some inspiring examples and wonderful stories of people and nursing homes who are bravely innovating and developing ways to make a difference in someone’s remaining days.

There are no easy answers to much of what we encounter in caregiving but perspective and understanding help a lot. We live at such a busy and potentially stressful time in history. Families are blown all over the country and globe. The grown up children and even the parents have much to deal with just to keep a roof over their heads and maintain the complexities of our lives. The thought of having to take care of someone for an unknown amount of time can seem overwhelming and inconvenient. Normal living gets turned on its head.

Many of my friends are finding that not only have their parents lived a long time, but so have they! What can we really handle by ourselves? Will we have the support of the rest of our family when the time comes for caregiving? These are questions that don’t come up for discussions easily, yet it needs to be discussed sooner than later.  After reading Gawande’s book I believe there is growing change in the way we approach death that has an elegance and beauty to what might otherwise be the opposite, and much of it has to do with getting into those difficult conversations.