On Sunday morning before church I talked with a friend who was clearly overwhelmed. I learned that she had taken on the huge responsibility of caring for her mother-in-law who is the late stages of Alzheimer’s type dementia. They are waiting for an opening in a Memory Care unit and will likely be another couple of months away. This friend is covering multiple day and night shifts for her mother-in-law and is still managing to take care of an infant grandchild four days a week. She is beyond exhausted and admittedly over her head in caring for a woman who is agitated and angry and unable to remember anything but the most basic life skills.
There is nothing easy thing about this. Since elder-care is my area of expertise I tried to get a little more information so I could offer resources to help lighten her load. But she could hardly hear or receive what I was offering because she was so stuck. There were a variety of sticking points, “On days when I have both the baby and my mother-in-law the baby entertains her. A little.” “The baby? Oh no, there is no one else to take care of her for even one day, besides, I promised so I have to do it.” And then a big sticking point, “Well, God gave me all of this to do so I know I have to do it. And besides I have to take care of my mother-in-law because I promised we’d take care of her.” What an over-tired, over-promised jumble.
It took a minute to back out of the situation far enough to find some small changes that could make a big difference. Perhaps the parents of the infant could find alternate child care until grandma moves, or at least for two days a week. Maybe extra caregivers could come in at night while the mother-in-law is sleeping. Even one night a week would help. Maybe my friend could take advantage of some resources to help her understand how to calm and redirect a person with advanced dementia. There were several maybe’s and in the end she finally said that learning how to communicate with and redirect her agitated mother-in-law would be the fastest way to help the situation. The resources are on their way and I’m glad I could help. Maybe once she makes one change for herself it will be easier to ask other family members to make changes, too.
I do believe that God gives us good work to do, especially in honoring and caring for our parents but it doesn’t mean that we have to do every bit of it ourselves. It does mean that we are to make sure that they are safe and well cared for. Sometimes this means the parent lives in a facility or care home where some one who is trained in specialized care takes over the daily work. Sometimes it means caregivers coming into the home. Other times it takes a team of people, using community resources to help. And occasionally you just have to let go of other responsibilities for a while, no matter what you promised. However it all comes together, it is not necessary and not reasonable to do it all yourself.
Be careful of the emotionally loaded promises you make to your elders, and when you do make promises about the future take the time to consider what you’re really saying. Often people making the promises take them so personally that they hold themselves to an impossible standard. Try something like this instead, “I love you and I will always do everything I can to make sure you are safe and well cared for.” It’s liberating to the person making the promise and reassuring to the person hearing it. For many families this kind of promise can be the first step to talking openly about the future. Once that’s done, plan to ask for help.