“When my dad became ill, it was my duty to care for him because I could make my own schedule.” When I recently spoke with James Colozzo, author of the memoir You Got To Do What You Got To Do, he shared how being single influenced his decision to be the primary caregiver for his dad.
James believed that being single gave him more flexibility, and that “it would be unfair” to interrupt the family lives and careers of his older sisters, who were both married with young children when their father was diagnosed with bladder cancer. So, at the age of 27, James took on the role of primary caregiver to his dad, and until his father’s death four years later, this was his priority.
When his father, weeks before his death, whispered to James to “take care of Mom,” James did that, too, dedicating almost 14 years of his life to full-time caregiving. His career and personal priorities moved to the back burner, and his days were instead filled with medical tests, doctor appointments, and tending to his mother’s physical needs.
James’ story isn’t unique. Many single children feel the pressure to care for their elderly parents so as not to impose on their married siblings, especially if those siblings have young children at home. Colozzo admits that the pressure he felt was mostly self-imposed, but these feelings can come from external sources as well. Sarah Jones, a licensed clinical social worker in Hartford, Connecticut, told me that, “there have been plenty of times where [she has] experienced single children being told that they don’t have an excuse not to help out,” simply because their schedules are more open without spouses and children to care for. She cautions, though, that “relationship status should not be the key factor that determines who or how much time is allotted to caring for elderly parents; these decisions should be based on willingness, emotional capacity, and available resources.”
As more and more adults care for aging parents and work and home schedules seem to be as busy as ever, relationship status (specifically being single and/or without children) is becoming one among several factors that influence caregiver status within families. If you find yourself in this situation, below are some practices that can help.
1. Practice self-care.
Treat yourself with as much love, compassion, and care as you do your parent(s). Rest well, eat well, and sleep well. Be sure you are getting to your regular medical and dental appointments. Being single does not mean that your priorities don’t count. If you really love your Wednesday night yoga class, then do everything you can to keep that commitment.
2. Communicate with family regularly.
Jones highlights the importance of communication among family members. “More than anything, division of time and responsibilities between adult children is essential,” she says. Stay in contact with family members and divide and conquer tasks to the best extent possible. Try to touch base once a week to establish the details of the week ahead, and don’t be afraid to ask for help so you can make that yoga class.
3. Expect the unexpected.
End-of-life caregiving is stressful and filled with unexpected twists and turns. There may be trips to the ER or emergency calls in the middle of the night. James advises to “be patient and expect the unexpected.” Try to develop backup plans, have a person on call, and cultivate flexibility in order to best manage these last-minute responsibilities.
4. Seek practical support.
Asking for help can be difficult, especially when you feel as though you are imposing on a sibling’s family time; but don’t forget, your personal time is just as important as anyone else’s. No one person can do it all. In addition to help from family members and friends, many cities have daycare options for the elderly — you can drop your parent for an hour or two while you take care of your personal needs. Search for one of these facilities near you on the Senior Living website.
5. Seek emotional support.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice Jones has to offer the single caregiver is “to lean heavily on a support network outside of the family.” It is important to establish a network of people who understand the dynamics of caregiving. There are many resources available. Visit an online support group, such as the Family Caregiver Alliance or search for groups in your area. Your local hospital may be a good resource for finding such groups.
James’ experience reminds us that while it is natural to get wrapped up in the pressure, the stress, and the difficult decisions, at the heart of caregiving are love, compassion, and meaningful sacrifice. These elements of family relationship can enrich our lives in unexpected ways. When asked if he would he do it again if given the option, he responds with an absolutely. “I helped someone else have a better quality of life. My mom lived until she was 92 years old and was able to see her great-grandchildren and be a part of their lives. The entire experience was the hardest thing I have ever done, but it was also the best thing.”
This article was originally written by Suzanne Hays.