When One Older Adult Is Caring for the Other
How you can help, even when you're not the primary caregiver
Caring for the caregiver of an older adult
If an older adult experiences a health crisis and the person he's living with -- whether it's his spouse or someone else -- is healthy, your role in the caregiver equation is an essential one. As long as the healthy older adult is willing and able, she'll likely be the primary caregiver -- but she's still going to need your support.
In her book How to Care for Aging Parents, Virginia Morris points out that when a parent falls ill or is diagnosed with a serious disease, everyone tends to focus on that parent. But the healthy older adult also needs your attention -- now and in the days and months ahead.
It's natural for loved ones to be concerned about the patient. If your friend or relative has just been diagnosed with cancer or suffered a stroke, your first concern is bound to be for him, ensuring that he get the best possible care. This will be his housemate's primary concern as well, and she's apt to neglect her own health and emotional needs as she focuses on him. The best way for you to help is by caring for the caregiver as well as the patient.
Consider the healthy person's experience. While the patient faces a physical crisis, the healthy person faces a crisis almost as profound. If your father has just received a terminal cancer diagnosis, for example, your mother must come to grips with the fact that she's losing her life partner. She could face years of caregiving -- and the prohibitive financial pressures that go with it. You can't change this reality, but your empathy and reassurance will help her face the difficult times ahead.
Promote nutrition, sleep, and exercise. When a loved one has a health crisis, it's easy for caregivers to forget to take care of themselves. Check that the healthy person is getting enough sleep; eating regular meals; and exercising whenever possible. If the patient is hospitalized with a heart attack and she doesn't want to leave his side, offer to stay with him for a few hours so she can go home to shower and take a nap. See that she gets out for a brisk walk in the fresh air. Bring her special foods or protein shakes if she's skipping meals, and consult her doctor is she's having trouble sleeping. Remind her that she won't be any help if she gets sick, too.
Expect some denial. Don't be surprised if the healthy person seems to be in denial about the gravity of the patient's health condition. It's likely that she hasn't yet fully absorbed the impact of the blow she's received. Gently remind her that she doesn't have to make any major decisions until she learns more about his prognosis.
Encourage her to discuss her feelings. The healthy person is probably in shock and struggling to understand the nature of the patient's condition. She may also be beginning to think about what's in store and to comprehend the devastating loss she's suffered. In a quiet moment, check in with her about how she's doing and offer to be a sounding board if she wants to talk through her grief, her fear, or her plans. Help her tap into resources like eldercare services and hospital support groups.
Let her talk even if it hurts. You may find that it's painful to listen as she expresses fear and grief over the patient's condition. Resist the urge to change the subject or end the conversation. She needs to express her feelings, and you're likely to find that sharing yours comforts you both.