If you have an aging parent with health issues who’s living in their own house or condo, chances are someone in your family is supporting them in some way. Checking in on them from time to time. Helping them with things like groceries. Taking them to doctor’s appointments. Coordinating home care or other community services. Maybe even helping them with some of their personal care.

It’s easy to discount the importance of this type of support. Generally, families step up to support their aging parents without much thought. It’s simply something you do for someone you love.

Family caregivers are often taken for granted

There’s a strong argument to be made that without the critical support family caregivers provide, the Canadian health care system would collapse. In 2009, University of Victoria researchers estimated that Canadian family caregivers contribute $24 billion in unpaid labour towards in-home care and support. And according to the Health Council of Canada, 70-80% of community care for older adults is provided by family members.

But it’s not just the health care system that takes family caregivers for granted. Families do it themselves.

Caregiving can take a toll

Often, there’s one person who takes on the bulk of caregiving responsibilities within a family, the primary caregiver. It could be a spouse, an adult child, or someone else who assumes the role without fanfare or even any discussion. They simply do what has to be done. Think about who’s taken on that role within your own family. Maybe it’s you.

Caring for a family member through a brief illness is one thing. But when the person you’re supporting has multiple health conditions and their need for support increases over time, you’re in it for the long haul. That kind of prolonged responsibility – on top of the other responsibilities in your life – can quietly take a toll on your own health.

But here’s the thing. Primary caregivers don’t always recognize the strain they’re under. And if they do, they may feel they have no choice but to soldier on. After all, the person they’re looking after has more serious problems than they do. Who are they to complain? 

Nonetheless, the pressure of continuously putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own builds over time. And then one day, without warning, your parent’s primary caregiver may reach a breaking point. They get sick. Or they have an emotional meltdown. And all of a sudden, they can’t continue doing what they’ve been doing.

Family in crisis

Your family is left scrambling, trying to desperately figure out who will look after Mom or Dad now. No one seems to have a complete picture of what needs to be done. Your parent isn’t coping any longer. It’s only now becoming clear just how much the primary caregiver did for them.

Your family is forced into making important, life-altering decisions without much time or information available. If no one else from your family can step in to fill the caregiving gap, your parent may be forced to leave their current home. This can be especially stressful if they resist the idea of moving.  

Don’t be blindsided

So, how do you avoid something like this happening to your family? 

Don’t wait for a crisis to happen. Take the following proactive steps.

  1. Identify who in your family is providing support to your parent. Is there a primary caregiver?
  1. Take stock of all the support they’re providing. It may be practical, emotional, or financial support. Remember, if something were to happen to the primary caregiver, you’ll need to know what gaps to fill. And you may not have a lot of time to figure it out.
  1. Rally around the primary caregiver. Acknowledge the importance of what they do and the toll it’s taking on them (even if they don’t acknowledge it themselves). Help them find community services that will ease their burden. Figure out ways to help them take a break. Don’t wait for them to burn out! If you’re the primary caregiver, acknowledge the toll it’s taking on you and reach out for help. 
  1. Have a Plan B. Discuss what happens in the event the primary caregiver can’t continue in their role. What community supports could be called in? Would a move be necessary? If so, where to? Start investigating these options now. Be sure to involve your parent in these discussions. 

You may want to consider involving a professional when it comes to drawing up your Plan B, someone who can help you fully explore your options and guide you through what might be an awkward discussion with your parent.

Involving them at this stage means that if your parent does have to move sometime in the future, they have someone in their corner who’s already familiar with their preferences and can help them manage the transition to a new living situation without a lot of undue stress.

Reduce your stress as a family by decreasing the number of tasks you’ll have to look after should your parent need to move. When the time comes, can also connect you and your parent with a host of senior-friendly experts from their network including contractors, moving professionals, lawyers, and accountants.

Free emergency checklist

If anything unexpected should ever happen to your parent, you don’t want to discover that you can’t access critical information you need to help them (such as names of physicians who are following them or supplemental health insurance details or banking information).

It’s wise to collect this information ahead of time. Here’s an Emergency Checklist that will help you do just that.

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