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Being Your Parent’s Caregiver & Advocate – Handling The Stress

Q. It was early morning when I was awakened by a call that my mother had suffered a massive stroke. My father had died about a year earlier from Cancer. My younger sister had taken care of our father and now it was my turn. I rushed to the hospital where the emergency room physician informed us that the stroke was likely caused by my mom’s blood thinner medication that she was taking for her heart. I believe the drug was called Warfarin.

The next thing I knew, I was working around the clock making sure our mom was being properly cared for by the hospital. Just two days after her stroke, my mother’s brother and sister flew in from Minnesota to see my mom, so did her closest friends who lived in the neighborhood. This was not a social event, it was like I needed crowd control and trying to accommodate everyone’s needs was more then I could handle.

The stroke rendered my mother in a semi-conscious state. Mom’s family and friends looked to my sister and me for answers. But we had none. We didn’t even know if she would survive the stroke.

Even though my sister and I felt like we were falling apart from the emotional trauma of the incident – we knew we needed to keep our cool, manage our emotions and be the best patient advocates we could be.

For me, the stress and depression felt overwhelming and while friends and family were kind and loving to us and I do believe it was therapeutic for our mom to have them present – the social aspect of dealing with extended family and friends made me crazy.

The stroke had left mom with almost complete paralysis on her right side. She was also completely incontinent and was having difficulty swallowing and speaking. She was hallucinating and we noticed marked changes to her personality. Her condition rendered her completely dependent on others for even the most basic of needs, particularly, feeding, bathing, and going to the bathroom. She could not transfer herself from the bed to the wheelchair without assistance from at least two people.

I took a leave of absence from work and spent full time being my mother’s advocate and caretaker. She was soon moved from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation. Her condition did not improve, notwithstanding the regular treatment performed by nurses, physicians, speech and physical therapists, and counselors of all types. We were lucky. We had good insurance that took care of most of the costs. Notwithstanding, my stress was taking a serious toll on me. I found myself going through extreme anxiety. While I had anxiety issues before, going through this was a whole new level of stress. My mother and I were extremely close so seeing her this was tearing me apart.

Once she was discharged from the rehabilitation unit without improvement, mom moved in with my family, and while her insurance provided for “part-time” home care service, I was performing much of the caregiving when the caretaker was not working. My wife works full time as a hair stylist and my children are in high school, so most of the caregiving was my responsibility.

I lost more than twenty pounds in first three months. I was still not getting sleep and remain concerned about my health. I felt guilty about that since I was not the one lying in bed paralyzed. Yet still there was something remarkably special in being able to care for the one who cared for me – and she did – she was always there for me. I thought that if I could get through the stress, the joy that comes from caring for my mother would shine through – it has – but what do I do with all this stress?

A. The first thing you need to know is that you’re not alone. There are over 45 million adults in our country that are caring for their aging and disabled parents. The good news is that there are support groups available to help you get through this period, but you must be willing to learn how to manage your stress.

I know what you are going through. When I was taking care of my aging parent, I felt like my life was no longer my own. I felt like I was putting out fires all the time and most of the time I didn’t know where to look to find solutions. Is my mother getting the right care, medication and nutrition? Is she being moved enough to avoid bedsores and what about the frequency of dangerous urinary tract infections? Is she getting enough nutrition? There were just so many potential problems I needed to deal with all the time and I was, like you, a first-time caretaker.

Here Are Some Stress Reducing Suggestions:

Don’t Ignore Your Own Well Being

Be patient with yourself. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you are not doing enough for your aging parent. From what I could tell from your question, it seems like you are a loving and committed son who is doing his best, but you must also take care of yourself in the process.

This means being mindful of what you are going through. If you can’t take care of yourself, how are you going to care for another?

Exercise Regularly

Get plenty of exercise whenever you can. Most doctors will tell you that just walking a half-hour a day will help you allow you to rid yourself of excessive fight or flight impulses we commonly refer to as anxiety. Our own body has the chemicals it needs to reduce stress. The most widely known of these biological induced hormones are endorphins. Not only do they reduce stress they trigger a sense of wellbeing and peace.

Meditation And Mindfulness

Meditation coupled with regular exercise is especially effective. Meditation is a form of mindfulness. This is the process by which you are aware that you are aware. While this sounds strange – and it does – consider that the one who is aware of you being aware is the ultimate internal witness. It observes without being attached to emotions, thoughts, judgments and fear. Mindfulness quiets the mind so you can observe, but without thinking or judging. It is your own consciousness, some would say, that watches the endless stream of thoughts and emotions rise and fall without effecting the “you” that is the silent witness – the watcher. To reach this level of detachment, you will need to practice and a meditation group would be a perfect place to start.

Medication And Herbal Remedies

I am not a big advocate of pharmaceuticals, but if your stress has reached a debilitating stage, you need to immediately look into getting medical help. Remember, stress is the number one cause of heart disease and many other health problems including addictive behavior. I would also look into natural herbal remedies such as CBD which is a non-psychogenic herb derived from the Hemp plant.

Consult A Physician

Don’t wait for stress to get so bad it turns into a debilitating depression and/or panic attack. Take the time to see a psychologist or psychiatrist and explain your situation. There are very good drugs that you can take that can reduce your stress without being rendered a walking zombie. I have been told that some anti-depressants work for anxiety as well.

Acknowledge Your Value – Loving Sacrifice Brings Us Joy

Finally, don’t underestimate the value of your service. It is an act of love and generosity of spirit. It will open your heart in ways that will surprise you. There is sadness, but there is also great joy in caring for a parent.

Remember, you are engaging in the cycle of life and your deeds will not go unnoticed. You will feel the joy in knowing you were a loving son or daughter, and that your effort and sacrifice allowed your parent to leave this earthly existence on the wings of love. You can give no greater gift to a parent and yourself!