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Shouldering the Responsibility of Caregiving

A woman hugs her elderly mother, outdoors

I don’t think being a caregiver is on most people’s wish list. It certainly wasn’t on mine. But eight years ago, my sister Marleen and I realized our parents needed help…and it was up to us to provide it.

I’d like to tell people our story because I hope it will provide some comfort, and some helpful advice, to others in a similar situation. And since one in five Americans is a caregiver, I know there are a lot of us out there.

How it started

My mom retired 25 years ago after being treated for a brain tumor. She has had rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 35. She also has Stage 3 kidney disease, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia.

My dad retired 28 years ago. Even at age 89, he was still able to do all his errands, but he was starting to have health problems of his own.

As time went on, our parents’ health issues were increasing, and they both needed to go to more and more health appointments with various specialists. When my sister and I asked them how each doctor visit went, they brushed it off.

About eight years ago, my sister and I were worried that we weren’t getting the full story about our parents’ health. We noticed that some communication gaps were happening. As members of an older generation, our parents didn’t always know what questions to ask. They also didn’t always understand their doctors’ answers or explanations, or remember everything that was said. So my sister and I started accompanying them on their visits. Marleen went with our dad, and I went with our mom.

We asked questions on their behalf and took notes. One time my dad said, “Thank god you were there, I didn’t know what the doctor was saying!”

Increasing care needs

It gradually got harder for our parents to manage their lives. My sister and I both lived close by, so we found ourselves doing more and more for them. It was a little hard for our mom and dad to admit that they needed our help. But at the same time, I think it came as a relief.

Marleen and I felt taking care of our mom and dad was our responsibility. I never considered myself a caregiver — just a daughter doing what she needs to do.

But it was a lot. It took over our lives and consumed our free time.

In May 2023, my dad found out he had a tumor in his esophagus. He needed chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He also had congestive heart failure, which is what ultimately led to his death.

Towards the end of his life, he had to be hospitalized. He felt bad about how much I was doing for him, and at one point he insisted that I take a break to go to a New York Giants game. We always used to go together, so now he didn’t want me to miss out.

Although doing so much for our dad was exhausting, my sister and I were grateful he had us to visit him in the hospital. Many people don’t have any family or friends to care for or visit them in their time of need.

Our dad passed away on September 5, 2023. With sadness came some relief, because both Marleen and I can now focus on taking care of our mom. Marlene does the banking and pays the bills and I do the food shopping and take care of the medications, and we take turns driving our mom to appointments.

But even with this division of labor, it’s still a lot to manage. It’s on my mind 24/7.

The importance of self-care

Caregiving is stressful and lonely. It takes over your life. You don’t feel like you can afford to take the time to go places, do the things you enjoy. But you have to take care of yourself, too. Otherwise, your life starts falling apart, and then you won’t be able to care for your loved one as well as you want to.

I actually enjoy coming into the office three days a week; things are normal here! Focusing on my work, doing all the things I’m used to, is a welcome relief. You don’t have to feel guilty about turning your attention away from your loved one, because you’re helping yourself in the long run by doing so.

Letting others help

It takes a village to get through an experience like this. You can’t do it alone.

A lot of people tell me, “If you ever need me to do something for you, just ask.” And even just knowing that they’re there makes a difference.

Asking them to help, letting them help, was hard at first. I felt like a failure. But you have to get over it. You need to let people in. It’s okay to ask for help. It doesn’t make you any less strong of a person.

How to support a caregiver

There are many different ways to help caregivers, many little things you can do to lighten their load. Sometimes it’s as simple as just listening to them, being a sounding board. Friends will call me up and take me to dinner, let me vent, make me laugh, or take my mind off my duties, and that’s wonderful.

One time I came home, dreading that I’d have to cut my grass after everything I’d already been through that day…and one of my neighbors had already done it for me without me even asking! Such a wave of relief washed over me, I started to cry.

The kindness that happens, the little things, mean so much and make such a difference.

Parting thoughts for caregivers

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

You don’t need to be perfect.

Take care of yourself.

And let others help.

Michelle Larsen

Michelle is Executive Assistant to the Market President at AmeriHealth. She also plays an integral role in many Associate activities such as creating and executing monthly social activities, keeping employees motivated and engaged, and working with outside agencies to organize volunteer activities that support our corporate programs in the community. Michelle runs her own catering business on the weekends. When she’s not working, you can find her at a flea market or a craft show, and she recently started taking line dancing lessons.