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Who’s Taking Care of Me?

Barbara Bensoussan

How do you give an ailing parent the best possible care without compromising your own health and sanity? Family First spoke with a variety of eldercare experts to learn how to optimize the experience and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

old “I want my life back,” Janis Abrahms Spring moans in Life with Pop (Avery Trade), a memoir of her years caring for her ailing, elderly father. “This pummeling, day after day, this constant state of high alert, feels not simply burdensome but punishing.”

Dr. Abrahms Spring, a distinguished psychologist who spoke to Family First at this winter’s Nefesh conference inBrooklyn, supervised her father’s care after the death of her mother. As his health began to fail, she found herself running from one medical emergency to the next, supervising a succession of aides, suffering the indignities his condition imposed on both of them, and making life and death decisions. “I often felt very alone and overwhelmed,” she admits.

She’s one of a growing population of adult children stepping up to care for sick, elderly parents. While today’s life span has almost doubled compared to a few generations ago, many elderly people finish their lives with a spate of challenging, complicated medical issues. Degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease (AD) gradually force victims to abandon their independence as they move in with children or enter a long-term care facility.

“Eldercare is universal,” emphasizes Harriet Blank, director of geriatric services for OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, who lectures about the challenges. “In places as diverse asBoroParkandHarlem, people tell me, ‘I feel like you know my family.’ ” Mrs. Blank estimates about 80 percent of eldercare is provided by family. “More people take time off from work to care for elderly parents than they do for children,” she says. “Usually caregivers are women, but a smaller percentage, about a third, are men. I call them the unsung heroes.”

The roller coaster of caring for a sick parent can leave the caregiver depleted. Caregivers lose sleep, neglect to eat or take care of themselves, and abandon self-nurturing activities like exercise or seeing friends. As Abrahms Spring writes, “With no relief in sight, with too much responsibility and too little control, caregivers absorb their patients’ trauma and become ‘the second patient’… I’m supposed to be Dad’s life preserver, but I’m the one who’s drowning.” On several occasions she got into car accidents from distraction and fatigue, a common occurrence among caregivers. Shirley, who cared for her aging mother for years, quips, “The most frequently prescribed medicine for Alzheimer’s disease is valium … for the children!”


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