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Carol had a big heart — sometimes too big, she thought. She was glad to run errands for her unmarried 82-year-old aunt who suffered from Parkinson's disease. But then her 85-year-old mother started complaining of worsening arthritic pain and needed help cleaning her apartment and buying groceries. Soon afterward, Carol's husband hurt his back and needed her attention, too. Carol felt like Swiss cheese — spread thin and with gaping holes from a lack of available time and energy to meet all her care receivers’ expectations.
As the American population grows older, more families have more members with caregiving needs, and increasing numbers of caregivers have simultaneous obligations looking after multiple family members of various ages.
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Think of the prototypical “sandwich generation” caregiver who's pressed by the demands of the generations above (aging parents) and below (children or grandchildren). I've recently heard about a caregiver in her 50s who's caring for her 70-something-year-old mother with moderate dementia and her 90-something-year-old grandmother with severe dementia.
I've also learned about another person who's caring for a father with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a husband with multiple sclerosis (MS) and an adult child with autism.
These caregivers typically juggle competing responsibilities, such as driving to one medical appointment or another, with conflicting emotions, including pride and guilt, joy and resentment, and self-assurance and anxiousness. Multiple loved ones rely on them, and their burden is especially heavy. They often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of daily tasks.
If all family caregivers need to balance caring for themselves and others, then that applies doubly or triply to these double and triple caregivers.
But they frequently reject the pleas of friends and professionals to take care of themselves by saying, “Who has the time?” and “I can handle this for a while longer.” It's as if they adapt to managing greater responsibility by embracing greater selflessness.
How can we better support them and convince them to better support themselves? Here are some ideas.
Beware of the slow creep of responsibilities
No one plans to be the person who's caring for several family members at once. More likely, they tacitly commit to coming to the aid of any of their loved ones in need. They then slowly accrue more and more duties as their family members age and require more assistance. At no point do they realistically regard their helping abilities as a finite resource to be strategically deployed.