Here's the thing: being a caregiver to an aging parent is a huge responsibility - one that 45 million people in the US are currently undertaking. Most are pressed for time, energy, and resources.
It is also one of the more emotionally complex and difficult endeavors you can experience. When you become the caregiver your relationship with your parent changes. Old roles may not apply, emotions are different. Simply put: your relationship paradigm shifts and the parent-child playbook you’ve been working out of for 40+ years changes, too.
You are a part of what is now called the Sandwich Generation, i.e. middle age folks who are caring for their own families and their aging parents. Caring for your parent is one of the highest callings of your life. That being said, it’s good to remember that callings often come with challenges.
This post focuses on practical tips to help you care for your parent while keeping your sanity (or at least recognizing if you’re on the verge of losing it). It is a toolkit for the times when you want to pull your hair out in frustration or when your heart is broken wide open by grief and love and you just don’t know what to do.
The number one concern I had as my mother got older was - is she eating? The answer was yep, my mom was eating...but not the right stuff and not nearly enough, which was really scary.
She had congestive heart failure and was released to us on hospice care with 10 percent heart function. Once we started putting plant-based meals in front of her, we saw her health transform. Five years later, she's doing great and her heart function is at 45 percent. She drives everywhere, swims several times a week, and plays with her 5-year-old granddaughter daily.
We set out to make it easy for other folks to help their family members eat healthy, plant-based meals.
While the details of caring for your parent are different from mine, there are common themes that can help make everyone’s experience easier. If you're one of the 65 million or so Americans caring for an aging parent or relative, I offer my deep respect, and the following suggestions to help your family build a strong foundation so you are better equipped for the ups and downs of caregiving.
Helping your aging parent eat right can have a profound impact on their health. When you are in a caregiving position, usually your parent is in declining health. One of the most powerful ways to help your parent is to help them eat food that does not further compromise their health and energy.
Large portions can be a deterrent for seniors struggling with a waning appetite. Consider 5-6 small meals vs. the traditional 3 larger meals per day. Also, using small plates or bowls can help you avoid overwhelming your parent at meal times.
Seniors often go for processed foods because they're easy. But so much of processed food is literally making folks sick - be it diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, obesity. Instead, try stocking their kitchen with ready-made or easy to prepare whole food, plant-based snacks like unsalted raw almonds, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains.
Sweet, delicious, highly nutritious smoothies are a wonder food for aging parents. They taste like dessert and deliver the goods for proteins, carbs, and all important servings of fruits and veggies. Here’s the trickery: use a small glass, and a straw (it’s amazing how much more a person will drink with a straw) and find out your parents favorite flavor strawberry, blueberry, etc.
You may notice your parents aren't drinking a lot of water. While diminished thirst is really common with seniors, helping your parents stay on top of their water consumption is essential. Senior dehydration is serious stuff. It can lead to bigger problems, like low blood pressure or urinary tract infections.
Get a few high quality water bottles that can keep your parent's water nice and chilly. Keep them filled and place them in several spots throughout the house: the bedroom, the living room, etc.
To make water more flavorful, infuse it with natural fruits. Some tasty combinations include: lemon, basil, and strawberry; lime, cucumber, and mint; blueberry and orange. Unlike fruit juice, there's no added sugars of chemicals - plus, they're easy to make and you can make a big batch at once and place a pitcher in the fridge.
If your parent has an aversion to or disinterest in water, you can get creative when keeping them hydrated. Try slicing up fresh fruit or vegetables that have a lot of water, like watermelon and cucumbers. You can also offer your parent mini-smoothies to boost their liquid intake. Smoothies feel like more of a treat and are also a great way to get some nutrients into them.
Managing medications is a biggie. At the end of the day, this is as much for you as it is for them. When you are somewhat organized, you may prevent yourself from having a melt-down when the pharmacy calls to say they won’t refill your parent’s prescription.
Go through all your loved one's medications, prescriptions and over-the-counter, and create and maintain a list. Give a copy to your parent so they can better keep track of what they're taking, and why - and have handy instructions on how to take each one. Keep a list for yourself too in case an emergency arises and you need to know what they're taking.
Know this: when you create a system for medications, it will get messed up. Make a system anyway; it will help you keep your sanity when the pharmacy calls to say they can’t refill a prescription. You will want to know what medications your parent takes, what each medication does, the dosage amounts and frequency, and refill dates. Accept that you are going to become a Jr. Pharmacist. Learn the names of medications and what they are for, the expiration dates. If you need a place to put your obsessive compulsive tendencies, this is it.
These folks are often the front line care for your aging parents. They are also an incredible resource.
Yes, you love your parents. Yes, you want to be there for them. But being a caregiver is a very complex thing and sometimes, it can feel like too much. The stress can actually have adverse effects on your health. 63% of caregivers report having poor eating habits than non-caregivers and 58% indicate worse exercise habits than before caregiving responsibilities.
It's so important for you to take the time to take care of yourself, too. It's not selfish - it's a necessary part of the job!
Whether it's going on a run, seeing a movie, reading a book, catching up with friends, you have to step out of the caretaker role once in a while. Focus on your own health - eat well, exercise, go to the doctor, relax. Taking time for yourself will not only make you feel better, it'll make you a better caretaker in the end.
You may worry asking for help puts a "burden" on someone else, but you can't do it all alone. Make a list of the things you could use help with - grocery shopping, bathing, cooking - so it's easier for someone to help when they offer (or you ask).
There will be days when you lose your temper. There will be days where you feel resentful. There will be days when you get it wrong. That's OK! This isn't an easy job, but understanding that you can't and won't be a perfect caregiver can make it a whole lot easier.
Think of the tips outlined in this guide as ongoing maintenance. If you let the basics slip, you can quickly tip into ineffectiveness, which isn't good for anyone. So my advice is to first focus on mastering the fundamentals. Once you've done that, you'll have the baseline you need to navigate the complexities (and rewards) of caregiving for your aging parent.
Let us take something off your plate by putting something healthy on your loved one's plate.
Our Healthy Senior bundle has enough ready-made plant-based meals to last your aging parent two weeks. It's chock-full of delicious, hearty, fresh and already-cooked plant-based dishes so you can rest assured your parent is enjoying healthy, well-balanced, tasty meals every day.
Some plant-based newbies find that their food waste increases as they ramp up the number of fruits and veggies they eat. Here are our tips for using your fruits and veggie from root to stem.