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.