When John Hubbard left Alabama to move back in with his mother in Beaufort, SC, in 2002, he couldn’t foresee how much his life would change. The two had a good relationship, and Hubbard was happy to be back in his hometown.
But when his mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 2 years later and he became primary caregiver, Hubbard had to give up his freedom, his former career, and a personal schedule. He even had to break off his own wedding engagement in another state.
Still, he wouldn’t do anything differently. “It wasn’t easy, I promise you,” he says. “You have to put your life on hold.” Hubbard quit drinking alcohol and smoking during this time, which spanned 13 years. “You have to put away the toys. You have to become an adult. I actually grew up.”
Get Real About Your Roles
Think hard and honestly about family dynamics before taking such a big step, advises Christina Irving, a licensed clinical social worker who’s client services director at the Family Caregiver Alliance at the National Center on Caregiving in San Francisco. “If you had a history that was filled with really challenging communication or abuse as a child, those are times when you may not want to step into the role of caregiver. It can be done, but it comes with a whole other host of emotional challenges to work through.”
You also must think about your own well-being. For example, if you have your own health issues, mental health challenges, or substance abuse struggles, “you have to think whether the additional stress of caregiving is worth it. … Also, can I help support that [other] person?” Irving says.
Sometimes, the things we don’t like about our parents or that annoy us most are behaviors and attitudes they’ve always had, notes Steven Zarit, PhD, a professor and head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University in University Park, PA. “Now that they’re old, they’re not going to become the parents we always might have dreamed of having. They’re not going to change. We need to be able to accept them as they are.”
Think About Space
This might be the first time you’ve needed to mull over practical stuff when it comes to your parents. Who’ll pay expenses? Will each person have their own area in the home? Who’s in charge of cooking and cleaning? “If you can agree on these issues, that’s a start toward making a shared household work,” Irving says.
Before you make a move, appraise the living space at hand. “Is the home actually safe and accessible, given what you expect somebody might need based on their health? Do you have space that allows privacy?”
Also think about your own needs. If you don’t have an extra bedroom to work with, can you, say, convert the dining room into a sleep space? What other needs do you have? Are you still going to be able to provide your parents extra support?
Hubbard says though there wasn’t much room in his mom’s house, “We did the best we could. She had two rooms to go in. She would sit on her sofa and watch TV until I got home from work. That’s all we could do.”
Make sure you get breaks if caregiving comes into play. Siblings or other relatives and family friends can be helpful, Zarit says. Work out a schedule. Have others take on certain tasks, like taking your parents out for dinner once a week.
Hubbard’s two sisters and brother live nearby, so though Hubbard had homefront duty, the four shared support. For example, his two sisters handled the “girl things” in their mother’s care, such as bathing and grooming.
What helped Hubbard through the hardest times was his friendships. “Another thing that was a saving grace was, we were coming up on our 30th high school reunion,” he says. Planning for it and having the chance to hang out with buddies he grew up with were key to keeping his spirits up.
Seek Community Support
If you don’t have siblings or relatives who can step in to help, you still need to bring support into the home, Zarit says. “This can help you when you can’t leave a parent alone.” He suggests you tap into agencies that provide in-home care or adult day service programs, which offer activities and social time for elderly people.
There might be a catch. “The hurdle you have to overcome, however, is getting your parents to agree to getting help,” Zarit says. “Adult day service programs I have worked with often have ways of helping people feel comfortable and welcome in the program.”
If things start becoming harder to manage in the home, you might also want to call on a mental health professional who can see you and your parent together. “A neutral person can lower the temperature and sort out the differences,” Zarit says. “A professional can help you decide if continuing to live together is viable, or if your parent needs to live somewhere else.”
Brace for Change
Living with your parents might not be the full, or final, solution, Irving notes.
“By the last month or so, I couldn’t watch her” decline, Hubbard says. “It had gotten to the point where she was gonna go, and there was nothing I could do anymore. She went to live with one of my sisters.”
Despite the extreme difficulties at times, “It was the best,” he says. “I got to know my mom all over again. We just had so many conversations. We would probably never have had those conversations.”