National Family Caregivers Month is an ideal time to reflect on both the responsibilities and rewards of being a caregiver.
Being a caregiver is deeply challenging. Especially when those we’re caring for cling fiercely to their independence, resisting support and insisting on remaining independent even when this is no longer a safe option.
Melanie Merriman, hospice expert and author of Holding the Net: Caring for My Mother on the Tightrope of Aging, knows this all too well from her experience caring for her fiercely independent aging mother.
Torn between the need to protect her mother’s safety on the one hand and preserve her autonomy on the other, Melanie and her sister struggled every step of the way to find solutions that gave their mother the assistance she needed without wounding her pride or damaging their relationship. Paradoxically, her mother’s desire for independence actually created a greater strain on Melanie and her sister.
In the process, Melanie learned a lot about how to how to strike this delicate balance, and would be happy to share the lessons with your audience:
● Let yourself be human. Start by acknowledging the fact that there is no foolproof recipe for caring for an aging loved one. There is no such thing as perfection. Even professionals such as hospice care experts get caught up in minutiae and bickering when caring for their own family members. All you can do is simply do your best.
● Pay close(r) attention to the signs of aging. Some signs of aging are so small they’re barely detectable. Most of the ones you need to watch out for signal a step back from everyday life. Is your loved one canceling in-person meetings? Is she refusing to drive to unknown places? Is she skipping meals here and there? All of these can be signs.
● Be more realistic about the consequences of aging. This is tough, but crucial. Even though your father is eighty-eight and still wins the annual bridge tournament at the rec center up the street doesn’t mean this will go on forever. It’s easy to sink into rosy thinking about those we love. It’s necessary to remember that aging and decline are universal processes that we must prepare for.
● Start discussions long before it feels like it’s time. Being proactive means talking to your aging loved one months or even years before it feels “right”. As we age, mental faculties can go. Changes in health can happen quickly. It’s best that everyone discuss the game plan long before it’s needed.
Taking these steps can help improve well-being during what Melanie has dubbed “the tightrope of aging”—the stage between active independent living and end-of-life.
About the Author:
Melanie Merriman is author of Holding the Net: Caring for My Mother on the Tightrope of Aging. She is also the co-author of Merriman’s Hawai‘i: The Chef, the Farmers, the Food, the Islands, a cookbook with stories about chef Peter Merriman. Melanie has spent much of her life as a research scientist, hospice consultant, and foundation grant evaluator—driven by a passion to illuminate, understand, and find meaning. Melanie and her husband Klein split their time between South Florida and Cape Cod, MA.