Becoming informed and getting the support of an interdisciplinary team helps guide children to dealing with this stage of life.
Medical Advisor: Edwin Etayo Ruiz, geriatrician and internal medicine doctor
Generally, parents are the ones who care for, protect and meet the needs of their children. It is less common to hear people talk about what happens when the roles reverse: when children take care of their parents as they age. While this transition can bring fear, uncertainty and sometimes family conflict, educating yourself about this phase is the best tool to dealing with it.
For Edwin Etayo Ruiz, Director of the Group for the Comprehensive Management of Chronic Diseases, how the elderly with some type of impairment are taken care of in Colombia is completely based on trial and error, “People don’t know how to prevent bedsores, dermatitis caused by using adult diapers or breathing food into the lungs; nor do they know how to transport or move a patient.
The children and grandchildren that care for them learn how to do so by trial and error, but they should actually have a basic understanding of how to treat them.” Below, Etayo answers some questions about this stage of life:
How has caring for the elderly changed?
“We come from a culture of nuclear families where people had a lot of children and there was always one – often a woman – left as the caretaker. With the phenomenon of changing demographics, lower birthrates, a greater elderly population and a 77-year-old life expectancy in major cities, we now have families without children or with just one or two who are responsible for caring for their elderly members without enough of a primary support network, such as close family members.”
How soon does this care start?
“You don’t necessarily have to wait for an elderly person to develop a disability or chronic disease for them to need the protection of their family. Laying the foundation for their care begins early on. This is called preventive geriatrics and is a process that manages risk factors to prevent disability or chronic disease that has negative health implications. This requires strictly monitoring the conditions patients develop after they turn 35 that are highly prevalent and harmful to a person’s health. With such conditions, children should form a support network so the patient sticks to their treatment and leads a healthy life.”
What should a child be aware of when they become a caretaker?
“The key is to keep strong values of respect, gratitude, patience, and most importantly, love. Often times the love an elderly parent receives depends on how the parent was with their child and on if they were a responsible father or mother. In our experience, we have seen fathers who have been psychologically, sexually and physically abusive or who have had severe personality disorders; and when they get old, they ask for the love of their family. These cases are difficult for children who have been abused, for example, to want to care for their parent. While there are exceptions, when there is no love, the first thing you have to do is identify the cause.”
What alternatives are there if the children cannot be the caretakers?
“While children are the primary support network, when they cannot take on the role of a caretaker, they can resort to other networks: people who are close to the family yet are not related to the patient such as friends, institutions, both, or even assisted living care facilities.”
How to avoid having to say you are “burned out?”
“It is important to take an interdisciplinary approach managed by a geriatrician who can plan for problems the patient may have, potential complications, what their care should look like and that includes a way to distribute responsibilities. The members of this team should make a thorough assessment to ensure that all medical, functional and mental health guidelines are being followed to help prevent caretakers from getting burned out, as they often end up more ill than the patient. Pre established break periods should be scheduled for each day, week, month and throughout the year.
Say goodbye to burnout
According to the Spanish Society of Geriatrics and Gerontology, caretakers can implement the following measures to help prepare for and prevent feeling overworked:
- If you consider it appropriate, ask family members and friends to help with the caretaking or for support.
- Look for external sources help that can provide additional psychological support such as consulting groups, at-home care, daytime adult assistance, food provision programs or substitute care.
- If your loved one is hostile or difficult, do not take it personally.
- Take care of your own physical, emotional, recreational, spiritual and financial needs.
4 tips for taking care of the elderly
- It is best to have at least some basic knowledge about how to handle these types of patients. Not having this type of information, may lead the caretaker to unintentionally engage in poor practices.
- When a patient is having feelings of guilt or expresses the desire to die because they feel they are a burden, this must be addressed with the doctor and help should be sought to avoid complications or unexpected events.
- If the person cannot be cared for by their children or family members and must be left in the hands of someone with whom there is no kinship relationship, this person must be trained and evaluated for their ability to provide care. This helps to prevent psychological or physical abuse.
- Identify any age-related physiological changes in order to ensure the patient gets the right treatment. For example, as humans age, our caloric intake lowers and we need less sleep. Recognizing these changes helps prevent the use of any unnecessary medications or interventions.
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