Senior Savvy: Caring for the caregiver

Debbie Gitner, LCSW, and Linda Sullivan, RN

Q: I am completely overwhelmed caring for my mother. I go to bed thinking about her at home and wake up thinking about her at home. I call every day, take her to medical appointments, bring food, clean the house, receive calls from her throughout the day, organize her medications and solve problems as they come up. In addition, I work in a very stressful job and I am a single parent caring for two children. I am just exhausted. How can I reduce my stress? I am worried that if I get sick no one will take over all my responsibilities.

A: Stress can affect your health. It is important to find little ways to reduce your stress. As the primary caregiver for a mother and two children you are sandwiched between generations. This is never easy. Try to look at tasks that can be done by others. It is never easy to delegate; however, it is a way of reducing stress.

Look into community services to see if there is help with food shopping and cleaning. Begin by contacting the local Council on Aging. Though your mother may not accept strangers in her home, it is important for her to understand it benefits both of you. If there are no free services then consider hiring an agency to help with those tasks. When hiring an agency ask if the caregiver can also be a driver. This driver can take your mother on errands and to medical appointments. You can speak with the physician by phone if you are unable to drive your mother to appointments.

Look at your life and think about what you enjoy doing -- reading a book, going for a walk, listening to music, shopping, having coffee with a friend, etc. You must carve out time for yourself.

Lastly, consider hiring a Geriatric Care Manager as advocate, organizer and general resource. This person can be a sounding board and work with you for your mother. You need to reduce your guilt that you are not doing enough. Societal myths make all of us think we are a super person able to do everything and juggle everything. Adopt a new mantra in which you tell yourself that taking time for yourself is guilt free, and consider seeing a therapist just to give you time to talk.

Q: My mother is quite confused, but I continue to see glimpses of her emotions still present. How can this be?

A: According to experts in the field, basic emotions are in the part of the brain called the amygdala. This stays with a person until they die. A person with dementia is able to respond, perceive and evoke emotions. This is important because a soft gentle response or a smile is something that can connect you with your mother.

There are times when your mother may not understand the conversation but is able to pick up on tones in voices around her, and that will evoke an emotion. Emotions can include feeling anxious, depressed and agitated. Calming environments such as playing music and finger painting are just two examples of ways to keep the environment calm and allow positive emotions.

University of Iowa researchers completed an experiment where they showed clips of happy and sad movies to five seniors with memory loss. Although the seniors did not remember what they watched, they did retain emotions brought on by the movie.

ElderCare Resource Services is a partnership of geriatric nurses and social workers that helps families to investigate, assess and recommend medical and non-medical care and resources for seniors. Send questions to or ElderCare Resources Inc., 29 Gano Road, Marlborough, MA 01752, or call them at 508-879-7008.