Dear Family Advisor

I'm not sure I'm ready to take care of two parents plus two kids.

Last updated: Jul 20, 2010

Mom has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and I think Dad may be showing signs of it as well. He's insisting that he keep her at home, but I'm concerned for both of them. (He also has a heart condition.)

My sister, who lives in Germany, thinks they should move in with me -- I live nearby and their doctors wouldn't have to change -- but I don't know if I'm ready for all this. I have a 6-year old and a teenage son who is showing signs of depression and isn't doing well in school. I feel like I need to do all I can to help him get through this difficult time.

Who do I owe my allegiance to -- my parents or my children?

Caring for two parents is a huge undertaking under the best of circumstances. As much as we love our parents and want to help care for them, our biological instinct tells us that our primary responsibility is to our children (especially when they're not adults yet). You shouldn't be made to feel -- by your sister or anyone else -- that you have no choice and must care for your parents in your home.

Moms are the barometer of the family. We're constantly gauging where our loved ones are. It's easy to go into "putting out the fire" mode, turning our attention to the brightest and loudest flames, but that's dangerous. It's the quiet ones who don't draw attention to themselves who can slide between the cracks. Your children need you to stay alert and not lose focus on them and their needs.

Your teenage son needs you to pay attention to the smallest of clues he's giving you. It's not just about getting medical help or counseling; he needs you to actively help him develop relationships and life skills that will both guide him through this rough patch and beyond. Both children are at crucial junctures in their lives, and they need you in unique ways.

It doesn't have to be an either-or situation: children versus parents, however.

Begin a "parent file." Start gathering ideas and connections. Go online and search for information, using the name of your city or area plus keywords such as eldercare, parent care, Alzheimer's care, senior community center, or Council on Aging. There are many great community resources out there -- and many ways to care for your parents that don't include them living with you full-time.

Investigate small group homes, adult daycare, live-in care, home health aides, as well as larger care facilities. Remember that since your mother has Alzheimer's, not all facilities are capable of meeting her needs -- and it's possible that you won't be able to keep your parents together. Compare options and costs; also check whether your parents qualify for [Medicaid] (

If you haven't already, I hope you'll educate yourself about Alzheimer's disease. Yes, it's a lot to have to deal with, but being proactive is better than being caught unaware by crisis after crisis.

Just because your sister is out of the country doesn't mean she's off the hook. As you begin to formulate your plan, think about ways she can participate -- perhaps helping with finances -- but also in other ways, such as visiting the States, so you can have a vacation. Encourage her to continue to call your parents and to be a strong shoulder for you to rely on. Caring for our parents isn't all for them; it's a way for us to stay connected, to think about our own golden years, and to give (there's a deep truth to the line "giving is better than receiving").

Don't allow this situation to grow so large and looming in your mind that you become overwhelmed. Yes, you have a lot of balls to juggle -- just make sure you're one of them. You can't become a robot. You can't be in panic mode all the time. You can't do it all "right" and never fall apart, cry, need affection, or crave adult company. Find time for yourself and be good to your soul, even if it feels like an act of defiance.

How do you fit it all in? It's not easy. Listen to your body. Give it sleep when it's dragging. Call a friend when you need to vent. Say you're sorry when you just can't do it all -- then let it go. No two days or two hours will ever be the same. Somehow you'll manage -- why? Because you have so many people to love and who love you.