Each of our aging parents is unique. Some people age so well that they need little help until they are well into their eighties, while others need hands-on care as early as their fifties or sixties. Adult children are often faced with the task of caring for both parents, and those who are married must contend with their in-laws’ declining health as well. Caring for more than one person brings added stress over how a caregiver should divide their time. It’s typically a case of caregiver burnout waiting to happen.

When Caregivers Are Pulled in Too Many Directions

Every caregiver is familiar with the constant nagging feeling that something or someone in their life is being shortchanged. Whether it’s the person you’re caring for, your children, your significant other, your career, your friends and hobbies, your household, or yourself, there never seems to be enough time or energy to go around.

Time management is never simple for family caregivers, but for those who are looking after multiple elders, the added complexities can make your head spin. What happens if your husband needs a new prescription filled ASAP but your father who lives in the next town over has a doctor’s appointment you promised to drive him to? Who takes precedence?

A while back, a member of the AgingCare Caregiver Forum posted a question about feeling torn while caring for two elders. She worried that she was neglecting her relationship with her aging mother because of the overwhelming needs of her ailing mother-in-law. I encouraged the caregiver to hire some in-home care on a regular basis for her mother-in-law so that she could enjoy some time alone with her own mom. Just because her mom isn’t sick (yet) doesn’t mean their remaining time together isn’t precious.

An even more common situation, however, is when caregivers are responsible for looking after two or more elders who are ill and live in varying locations, sometimes over long distances. It’s a circumstance that I know well. During my busiest eldercare years, I was the primary caregiver for five seniors in three different living situations. I constantly struggled to divide my time compassionately and efficiently while still meeting all their needs and being a good mother to my two young boys. To help myself stay on top of all my responsibilities without burning out, I had to do some soul-searching. I produced the following rules to guide me through that trying time.

Tips for Caring for More Than One Person

  1. Learn to differentiate between a loved one who has the most pressing needs and a loved one who would simply appreciate more companionship or attention. Seniors often “create” more tasks for caregivers to attend to when all they really want is for someone to stop by and visit with them. Understanding the true nature of your care recipients’ needs and wants (and the difference between them) can help you prioritize responsibilities and manage your time.
  2. Investigate eldercare resources that can help lighten your workload. You alone cannot be responsible for meeting multiple seniors’ complex needs. Our loved ones often depend on us for everything from companionship and hands-on care to transportation and housekeeping. The truth is that all these tasks can be outsourced to other people.
    Sometimes this includes hiring professional in-home caregivers, moving an elder to senior living, trying out adult day care or taking advantage of volunteer organizations in your community. For example, Senior Companions, part of Senior Corp, offers a free service where volunteers 55 and over are trained to be companions to homebound or lonely elders. Your local Area Agency on Aging can help you find federal, state and community resources that can both lighten your load and improve your care recipients’ quality of life. Yes, many of these resources have a price, but I promise that a practical respite care strategy is well worth the money if it reduces your caregiver burden and frees up some time in your schedule.
  3. Delegate tasks to other family members and friends. Yes, you and your family are busy. If you have siblings, chances are they’re busy, too, but none of that means the entirety of caregiving should fall solely on your shoulders. Take some time to figure out what other people in your life can feaszibly do to contribute and then ask them directly for help. Surely, your sister can talk to Mom on the phone for a few minutes every other day to help her feel more connected. Or perhaps your husband can drop by your father-in-law’s senior living apartment with dinner on his way home from work once a week. These don’t have to be grand gestures to have a huge impact on the everyday lives of you and your elders.
  4. Respect your limits and start setting boundaries early. In eldercare, needs may come and go, but a senior’s overall condition will inevitably worsen. If you’re having trouble early on as a caregiver, seek help immediately. Things will only get more difficult. If you try to do everything by yourself, you’re traveling down a sure path to caregiver burnout. Once you’ve hit the point of total emotional and physical exhaustion, your health will be at risk and you won’t be able to do much for anyone.
  5. “Healthy” people in your life deserve your time and your attention, too. This includes parents who are still independent, your children, your significant other, close friends and yourself. Nurturing other relationships on top of caregiving may seem like just another chore, but keep in mind that life is unpredictable and everyone’s time on this earth is limited.

If you are caring for multiple elders, craft a plan that works for you and your unique situation. Determine your care recipients’ needs and differentiate them from “wants.” Delegate. Hire help if necessary. Just be sure to give yourself time with each person you care about. And, yes, that time should include self-care for you as well.

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