The art of caring for your parents, your children...and yourself

“I get up around 6 a.m. and make sure the kids get up. I make their lunches the night before. At 8 or 8:30 a.m. I call and check on my mom to make sure she gets up, to make sure nothing has happened since I last talked to her,” says Elisabeth Burg, a registered nurse. “Then I go visit my patients, and I stop by my mom’s in the afternoon. Then I start planning my next day. I might exercise, if I have time, and then sleep.”

Burg’s schedule is as full as her patients’ seven-compartment pillboxes. She not only provides in-home care for disabled and elderly patients, but also supports both her aging mother and her husband, who suffered a heart attack last July. “Mom” is on her list of titles, too; right now she’s preparing one of her 18-year-old twins for the Navy and taking the other on college tours.

Burg is part of a subset of caregivers who provide care for aging parents and children at the same time, known as the “Sandwich Generation.” The American Association for Retired Persons says family and friends provide care for 70 percent of the growing aging population. Supporting a parent without professional help can be difficult, especially if they suffer from a debilitating disease like Parkinson’s or cancer. On top of that, the added demands of childcare and work can be overwhelming.

Janet Walsh, Director of Public Affairs for Cincinnati Public Schools, provides care for her mother and father, who have early stages of dementia. Her parents recently relocated from out of state (the house they’d been living in for 40 years) to an assisted care unit in Cincinnati, closer to Walsh. She says the uncertain nature of the situation has been tough on everyone in her family. “The nature of aging is that things don’t get better,” says Walsh. “You don’t know how long you can forestall the inevitable.”

Modern medical advances now allow people to live into their eighties, nineties, and beyond. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 85 and up is the fastest growing age group in the United States. But a longer life does not necessarily mean a richer life. Many people suffer from age-related degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s in their later years—diseases that involve long-term decline, thus the need for long-term care.

For Walsh, the process of getting her parents the help they needed wasn’t easy. But, through extensive open conversations with her parents and collaborations with her brother (who lives out of state), Walsh’s parents eventually agreed to move into an assisted care unit. Her brother manages their parent’s finances, which reduces some responsibilities and stress. Walsh suggests divvying up duties between family members if possible to reduce the strain. “If you can divide the labor with siblings it really helps,” she says. Walsh adds that the demands of caregiving make it easy for caregivers to forget about themselves. “It can be very easy to spend all your spare time with your parents,” she says. “So remember, take time for yourself.”

Burg and Walsh’s situations are unique, yet they’re not altogether uncommon. Caregiving in general has long been deemed primarily a woman’s job: In 2000, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging found that the average American woman can expect to spend 17 years caring for a child and 16 years caring for an elderly parent. Burg agrees with Walsh and says one of the hardest parts of caretaking is remembering to take time for herself. When finding alone time between doctors’ appointments, working, and cooking sometimes seems impossible, Burg looks to friends and family for support. “It’s not failure to ask for help,” she says. “But it’s hard for me to let up that control and say, ‘Hey, can you help me do this?’”

Resources are available in Cincinnati that provide education and assistance to caregivers, but for some people, asking for professional help is a matter of putting away pride. Valerie Landell, executive vice president of the Cincinnati Visiting Nurse Association, says struggling caregivers often come to the VNA for assistance when they’re already overwhelmed. “Most people come to us once they’re in crisis,” Landell says. “One of our greatest concerns is so many women and caregivers want to do everything themselves and then they get overwhelmed. Most don’t ask for help until it’s at a critical point.”

The VNA is a national non-profit association that “supports, promotes and advocates for community-based, nonprofit home health and hospice providers that care for all individuals regardless of complexity of condition or ability to pay.” Based on the idea that communities are healthier through quality care provided in a way and place people choose, nurses, educators, and physical therapists from the VNA provide in-home care and education for the elderly, the disabled, and caregivers.

They’ve been around since before Medicaid and recently celebrated 103 years of service. Currently, the nurses and physical therapists from the Cincinnati branch visit hundreds of patients a day, serve 55,000 people per year, and provide care to 12 patients over age 100. Landell says one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is being able to see people live as comfortably and independently as possible. “We teach families how to provide at-home care effectively,” said Landell. “That’s a good feeling.”

With her background in nursing, Burg is well acquainted with the healthcare needs of the elderly, along with the needs of caregivers and children. With the support of family and friends, she is able to balance the needs of her family, her job and herself all while maintaining a sense of optimism. “I like watching my kids grow up and be really productive,” she says. “And being able to see my mom stay in-home and independent is rewarding.”