When Your Aging Parents Need YouCaregiving can bring guilt and anxiety—and it can be a gift as well.
For most children, their parents are the people in charge of taking care of them from infancy and even into adulthood. Mom and Dad were there to bandage your boo-boos, sing you to sleep, and soothe you when you were sick. But as the population ages—and more are afflicted with age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's, stroke and cancer—the tables are often turned on parents and their now-adult children.
According to statistics from the National Institute on Aging, there were 37 million people age 65 or older in 2006; that's about 12 percent of the population. But by 2030, as the Baby Boomer generation ages, that number is predicted to rise dramatically. Projections forecast that approximately 71.5 million people—about 20 percent of the population—will be 65 or older. Alzheimer's disease currently affects more than 5 million Americans, and strokes, which also afflict millions of people each year, are the number-one cause of adult disability.
Finding answers to tricky questions
For most adult children who are thrust into a caregiving role for a parent, the change happens suddenly. "It usually starts with a phone call, and it's like getting hit over the head," says Andy Cohen, CEO of caring.com, a Web site that offers support and advice to caregivers. Cohen himself was plunged into this situation a few years ago when his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within 24 hours, he had to try to learn everything he could about her disease and her treatment options—as well as how he and his sister were going to cope with their new roles as adult children caring for their mother.
"Parents are often in complete denial, so it falls to the children to make many of the important decisions—about treatment, care, housing and finances," says Cohen. He turned to the Internet for help, and found plenty of great information about the disease and medical options, but he had a hard time finding answers to trickier questions about insurance coverage, how to order a hospital bed, how to find and hire a caregiver and other issues.
Cohen's experience was the inspiration for the creation of caring.com, which launched last November, almost a year to the day after his mother died. "When you're going through this, it's so overwhelming, so I wanted to create something that could hold people's hands and help them navigate these scenarios," he says. With over 34 million Americans currently coping with caregiving issues, this is information that's much needed.
A 'shock to the system'
When Kelly Corrigan's father was diagnosed with bladder cancer, she describes the news as a "total shock to the system." And for her, it was actually a double whammy—a few months earlier, Corrigan, then 36, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. During her eight rounds of chemotherapy, her parents came every week to take care of her and help her husband take care of their two young daughters. "Being sick catapulted me back to childhood, so I'd just had this very powerful reminder of how much I needed my parents," she says. "The sudden realization that they wouldn't always be there for me was just something I hadn't really internalized before this news."
For the first five months after her father's diagnosis, Corrigan couldn't even travel to be with him. "I was trapped in California [her parents live in Pennsylvania] having daily radiation treatments for my breast cancer, and not being able to see him created so much anxiety," she recalls. And even when she was finally able to go be with her parents, her arrival created a new anxiety. She had to bring her whole family—which meant her elderly parents had to deal with a two-year-old and a four-year-old in their home. "I couldn't help but think, 'Am I helping or am I being selfish?'" she says.
But what impressed her most about the role reversal she and father found themselves in was how graciously her father was able to accept her help. "I just kept thinking that it was so great that he was letting me help him, and I realized that I would do anything for him," she says. During a night at the emergency room, Corrigan recalls making repeated pleas to the nurses for help. "My manner and my emotional intensity [were] no different than if I'd been there with my two-year-old," she says. "I was a total mother bear."
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