Two for One: Caring for Two Elders at the Same Time


Each of our aging parents is unique. Some people age so well that they need little help until they are into their eighties, while others in their sixties need care from their adult children or other caregivers. Married adult children often are coping with an ailing parent or parents on each side. Along with the increasing care needs of their loved ones comes more stress around how to divide their time. Its a case of caregiver burnout waiting to happen.

Recently, the AgingCare Caregiver Forum received a question from an upset community member who felt she was neglecting her own mother because of the overwhelming needs of her mother-in-law. In my answer, I encouraged her to hire some in-home help on a regular basis for her mother-in-law so that the caregiver could enjoy some time alone with her own mom. Just because her mom isn't sick (yet), doesn't mean her mom should be neglected now.

An even more common situation, however, is that many people are trying to care for two or more elders in varying locations, with each elder needing significant care. It's a situation that I know well. During my busiest eldercare years, I was the primary caregiver for five elders in three different living situations. I continually struggled to compassionately and efficiently divide my time in a way the best covered their needs.

How do we divide our time for others and still keep a little for ourselves?

  1. We need to determine who has the most pressing needs and who would simply appreciate more companionship.
  2. We need to investigate alternative methods of giving our elders the attention they need without having to depend on us for everything, including companionship. Sometimes this includes hiring in-home help, or moving an elder to an assisted living facility or a nursing home.
  3. Many faith communities have active groups who are trained to visit elders. Senior Companions, part of Senior Corp, can be very helpful. If you have an RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program) group in your community, chances are they can connect you with Senior Companions. This is a free service where mature people are trained to be companions to home-bound or lonely elders.
  4. Learn to delegate. Yes, you and your husband are busy. Both of you may have siblings but they are also busy, or live a distance away. None of that means the caregiving should fall completely on your shoulders. Take some time to figure out what people can do at a distance. Even if it's simply a phone call the elders can count on or a letter that comes weekly, it will help.
  5. Don't let yourself be overwhelmed by the care needs of multiple elders before you even look for other options. Start setting boundaries early. I'm not encouraging neglect by any means. I'm just suggesting that you learn to trust that other people can help you care for your loved ones.
  6. Recognize differences in elders' needs. The woman from the community who was upset about her own mother being neglected simply because her mother didn't need a lot of help, had a valid point. If you have healthy parents, don't neglect them. You may find that they understand your constraints. Yet you know they'd like some of your time. This time is precious to you both and you'll never get it back.
  7. If you are caring for multiple elders, figure out a plan. Determine needs. Delegate. Hire help if necessary. But give yourself time with each person you care about, and that should include yourself.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Minding Our Elders

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This is me. I've done it all alone for 2 and half years straight. I waiting too long to get help. I have two siblings and who don't live close enough to help on a daily basis, and they don't even visit. Ever. They feel entitled somehow. I waited too long to get help from an outside agency. My own family has suffered including the relationship with my husband whom I've neglected. Don't do what I did. Hire an outside agency to do the errands and visits. Put your own family first, including yourself. You'll get over the guilt and get on with your life. It's ok. Now today, I'm going to spend the whole day on me!
I am now 61 and have been the primary caregiver for Mom and Dad for the past year after we persuaded them to move from their home to an assisted living community. Mom is 93 and Dad is 87. Neither are very ambulatory. Mom has dementia. We had to select a place they could afford, which meant it had to be a place 3 hours away from the expensive metro area they used to live in (and which I still live in with my husband). Well, all my time over the past year was consumed with preparing their house for sale and dejunking it, so they wouldn't need to continue paying their almost $2K/mo mortgage at the same time as the exorbitant assisted living fees (even in the less expensive area, it comes out to at least $6K/mo - on top of their other expenses). So after much time, labor and stress (mostly mine), we got the house sold at a reasonable if not great price at the very end of 2015. In addition to that, I have been dealing with long-distance care management, communications with assisted living and medical providers, numerous falls and ER visits, hospitalizations, rehab, and complete management of their finances in addition to my own. And of course numerous road trips - 3 hours each way. Needless to say, my full-time contract woirk has fallen by the wayside. I'm self-employed but since October I've been doing nothing but unpaid caregiving and family management. As if that wasn't enough, now my retired husband (who is no spring chicken) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Feeling like throwing in the towel at this point...
TheLastStraw, your situation is similar to mine, except I couldn't pry my parents away from their single family home which had become too much for them to handle. Mom [98] was in denial that Dad [94] shouldn't be climbing ladders to fix things, etc. And the both stopped driving 7 years ago, so that placed me in the driver's seat, to which I hated to no end.

Then all the doctor appointments, eventually I got my parents to go to the same doctors so I could do back-to-back appointments, but there were still those specialized doctors that I had to keep separate. I was so sick of waiting rooms that I stopped going to my own doctors. And so tired of rushing to fill out 2x the forms before the doctor came into the exam room.

And the falling, oh my gosh, every time the phone rang I froze wondering who had fallen now, there was 2x the chance of that happening. Eventually there was a final fall for my Mom and she recently passed. So now my Dad decided time to move into Assisted Living and he took what furniture and things he needed... whew, that should have been the plan years ago. Now I have the house to deal with, lot of furniture and "stuff", and it will take a month of Sundays to clean it out.

I am also an independent contractor, and as you and I know we don't get paid unless we work... there is no vacation pay or sick pay to help tied us over. For me no vacations, either. My parents, mainly my Mom, refused all outside help. No way I could go away even for a day :(