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Sharp Health News

When parenting roles are reversed

May 5, 2016

When parenting roles are reversed

Mother’s Day is an excellent opportunity to celebrate and thank the women who gave us a lifetime of love, comfort and advice. It’s also a day to remember that mothers are the consummate caregiver and that for some, caregiving extends beyond caring for their children, and can often mean caring for aging spouses, siblings and parents.

According to a 2009 study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP, approximately 66 percent of family caregivers are women. They will provide, on average, 20 hours of care each week to an aging parent and continue that level of commitment for close to five years. This 20 hours of care is often on top of the 40 or more hours an employed caregiver puts in at work and the remaining time, if any, spent with family and other responsibilities.

Dr. Dara Schwartz, lead psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, discusses the reversal of roles in many homes as aging parents need greater care and their adult children strive to provide it.

Why are more adult children caring for their parents?
The number of informal caregivers is expected to rise by more than 85 percent over the next few decades. That is a staggering number. Female adult children aged 35 to 64 are the most likely to experience caregiving responsibilities. This is often referred to as the “sandwich generation” because of competing responsibilities of caring for parents and children.

Why is it often a daughter, who might have her own family and a job, who finds herself also caring for an ill or aging parent?
Daughters are two times as likely as sons to become the primary caregiver. In fact, 50 percent of all women will provide elder care at some point in their life — whether as a partner, daughter or daughter-in-law. And, in this role, many women will give up their own free time and reduce work hours, thereby affecting current income and future retirement benefits.

The average woman today can expect to spend more years caring for an older family member than for her own children. And, yet, we are still not talking about caregiving enough.

What are some of the challenges for people in this sandwich generation?
Research shows that caregivers can suffer quite significantly from depression, high blood pressure and heart disease. They have even been shown to have shorter life spans because of the stress involved in caregiving. Most caregivers do not receive formal training or education in providing support or care, so increased education, training, respite for the caregiver and more low-fee options are something that our society will need.

Caregivers also need to be on the lookout for caregiver stress and burnout. Signs and symptoms may include withdrawing from activities; increased irritability; difficulties with sleep; increased feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and loneliness; increased worry; and gastrointestinal distress.

What can caregivers do to care for themselves?
The analogy I often use with caregivers is that of the flight attendant advising airplane passengers to put an oxygen mask on yourself before assisting the person next to you. The reason is that you are of no help to anyone if you can’t breathe. That is an important lesson in caregiving. You have to breathe. You have to make it a priority to put in time for yourself, to care for yourself. If you don’t do that, you will increase your likelihood of stress and burnout, and you will not be the best caregiver you can be. Stay in touch with your support group, go for a walk, exercise or plan pleasurable activities. Taking care of you is part of being a good caregiver.

Sharp HealthCare provides caregiver support classes throughout San Diego County.

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