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At Wit's End Caring for an Elder Parent

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    My mom moved in with my family a couple of years ago after a stroke left her unable to take of herself. Since that time her health has worsened and she needs a lot of care. I have always been a stay at home mom and I had always told my mom and everyone else in my family that I was happy to have her come to us and that I never wanted to see her go to a nursing home.

    It’s a lot more difficult than I ever imagined it would be though. My mom was always very sweet and generous but since her stroke her personality seems to have changed and she has become very short tempered and critical. I feel like even though I am bending over backwards to care for her she has no appreciation of what I am doing. But the bigger issue now is that I have started drinking again.

    I had a very bad alcohol problem in my teens and 20’s, before I met my husband. I managed to get it under control and after a few years I even learned how to drink like a normal moderate person. I thought my alcoholic days were totally behind me but now that I am already past 50 I find myself sneaking wine into my coffee cup in the middle of the morning and wondering how to hide all the bottles I am going through. I just feel physically and emotionally overwhelmed and taking the edge off with alcohol is the only thing that keeps me from snapping.

    We don’t have the money to get nursing help and I don’t have an outside the house job anyway, so there is no reason why I can’t take care of my own mother, but on the other hand I feel like I am going crazy and on some days I just wish that she was anywhere but in my own house. I just feel like I am in this tiny pressure filled box and I am not sure I can keep doing what I know I have to keep doing. My sister is single and works a job which has her on the road 30 weeks a year and so she is in no position to really help out and my husband will support whatever I decide to do but he says it is my decision to make. Sorry, this is as much a rant and a vent as it is a question but since I have to care take for her and since it is literally driving me to drink, what can I do to make this easier?

  • Art Matthews Says ...
    Art Matthews

    Caring for a parent is very difficult even when they aren't experiencing the kinds of difficulties you mention. It sounds to me that you are judging yourself harshly for not working outside the home and finding it impossible to sustain the effort of caring for her day to day. For people who haven't had training in nursing care or dealing with psychiatric conditions it can be very difficult indeed. You needn't judge yourself for falling short. There are so many dynamics in the Child-caregiver -- Parent-patient relationship, many of which have to to with old issues and others having to do with new ones.

    As our parents age and suffer losses in function, we become aware of our own mortality and of their impending death. We feel anxiety and sadness for the things we may never get to do and the things we fear we may have to do in the future. We forget to take the time moment-by-moment and day-by-day. Our parents are also engaging in a developmental hurdle of seeing the value in the lives that they have lived and in letting go of dreams they may have had for their future. They are aware of their limitations and mourning their losses. Sometimes the Child-caregiver becomes the brunt of their grief-driven anger. Some of your mother's anger and irritability may be organic from the stroke and some may be psychological from her failure to adjust to her limitations and losses.

    But first things first, you have to take care of yourself and get a handle on your drinking. It seems to me you are using it as an escape and as self-medication for your anxiety and moods. Get thee to a doctor, go to some meetings and/or a therapist. A doctor needs to look you over to see if there are any medical reasons for your change in energy, mood and coping.

    Physical conditions can cause anxiety and depression (thyroid problems, for example) or fatigue and irritability (anemia, leukemia, nutritional deficiencies). Caregivers often put themselves last when it comes to health care and healthy self-care. Make yourself a priority. I realize this might mean increased expenses in the short-term, but if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to take care of anyone else... period.

    There are 12 step abstinence programs and there are other programs that are based on moderating and changing drinking behaviors (SMART Recovery and others). A therapist with expertise in working with aging issues and caregivers can help you look at what's swirling around you and help you understand why caring for your mom is so frustrating for you. They can possibly help you to see what you can change in the way of communication, behavior modification or time management that could help immensely. Sometimes it just takes a fresh set of eyes and ears. I would recommend finding a support group for caregivers caring for aging parents or one for family members of stroke or traumatic brain injury patients. Often you can find one connected to a local hospital or elder care center. You will see post haste that you are not alone in how you feel or even how you have been trying to manage. Knowing that you aren't "crazy" and other people have walked in your shoes can be an enormous relief in itself.

    It also seems that you are expecting you should be able to take care of your mom and your family without help. You said "so there is no reason why I can’t take care of my own mother." "ERRRRRRR! Bad answer." Yes, there IS a reason, you can't handle the stress. You need help. Everyone needs a respite from time to time. You know this because you are essentially trapped in the back and forth of this argument. This is what causes you distress. "I must care for my mother, but I cannot manage to care for my mother and care for me, too." or "... and I fear I cannot care for my mother much longer."

    Locate an agency like the Area Agency on Aging in your community. They are an excellent, nation-wide (US) non-profit organization designed to help the elderly. They can often help you find day care programs and respite programs or even in-home helpers to give you a break. The national umbrella organization's web address is  Seek out local universities or colleges in your area where they may have a gerontology program. They often have excellent resources for community members because they are placing their student into internship programs throughout their regions.

    And lastly look into your mother's health benefits to see what she may be eligible for in the way of supportive care, rehabilitation and in-home assistance... and utilize them. She may have services available to her through Medicare or Medicaid you know nothing about but could provide you with the support you need to handle the big picture. Area Agency on Aging counselors can help you discover if your mother qualifies for Social Security Disability for example.

    You started to reach out and get help for yourself by writing your question, now keep going. You have your husband on your side and you need to give your sister the opportunity to be involved. She may be feeling inadequate because you have taken the responsibility for yourself and she's feeling guilty she's not lending a hand. Let her shoulder some of the burden. It's called being a family.

    On a personal note, I want to commend you for attempting to do what you are doing. I understand from my own experience with my mother and her battle with Alzheimer's Disease just how hard it is to do what you are doing. Care giving is not something we always envision as children we will have to do for our parents, but for so many of us it is reality. We will never to it perfectly. We cannot meet everyone's needs all the time. We will make mistakes and we will sometimes lose our tempers or our grounding. Those are the indicators that our own self-care is long overdue.

    Best to you and yours.


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