Caring for Aging Parents
The population of older Americans is growing rapidly. According to some estimates, by 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over 65 years old. This shift is placing a strain on resources available for the aging population, and causing more family members to take on the caregiver role.
During a recent Caring for Aging Parents session in the Benefits and Wellness Education Series, representatives from Tech’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) outlined some logistics and resources to assist with caregiving.
Angel Brutus, a counselor with Synergistic Solutions, said it is important for primary caregivers to break free of the belief that they have to do it alone.
“Just because you are a relative, it doesn’t mean you have to be the only caregiver,” Brutus said. “If there is someone who has been a part of your parents’ life, maybe a church member or a colleague, it’s OK to ask them for respite.”
Finding a caregiver that your parents can trust is important, so having someone that they already know will make the transition easier. It’s also essential to be specific when stating what you need. Brutus says giving the person a timeframe to commit to is helpful, for example: “I need someone to sit with my mom for four hours today.”
Brutus also advises that in families with several siblings you should “figure out what each sibling does best and tap into that. If you have multiple siblings, speak to that one particular area where each one can give you a reprieve.”
As our loved ones grow older and their health deteriorates, it is sometimes hard to continue seeing them as the strong and capable person they once were. However, Brutus suggests that they continue to be included in the conversation regardless of their cognitive status: “Figure out the things of importance in the words that they are using and continue a dialogue.”
The EAP can help answer questions regarding Medicare, Medicaid, and housing options.
These areas sometimes experience changes regarding eligibility requirements, so it’s important to speak with a counselor who keeps abreast of the changes. The EAP also provides complimentary attorney services for advance directives. This includes creating living wills, power of attorney, durable power of attorney for health care, and regular wills.
To contact the EAP for no-cost counseling, referrals, or other services, call 844-428-3241 or request services online at espyr.com. To log in, the password is well-being.
A Father-Daughter Dance of Caregiving
Birgit Smith Burton’s father, Charles Smith, was a take-charge kind of man. He retired as a lieutenant colonel after having joined the U.S. Air Force upon graduating from Tuskegee University with an engineering degree. He later worked as a civil engineer for the state of New York before retiring and moving with his wife from Buffalo, New York, to the small town of Covert, Michigan. He became his wife’s caregiver after she suffered a few strokes.
But within a year of her mother’s death, Burton noticed signs that her father’s health was also declining.
“He wasn’t making the best decisions, but he didn’t want to be questioned about it,” said Burton, Georgia Tech’s executive director of Foundation Relations. So, she treaded lightly and interjected only when necessary.
Her father, who lived alone in southwest Michigan, then had a mild stroke that went unnoticed for several days. After he was treated for the stroke, Burton brought him to her home in Atlanta for two months to recuperate. He was able to talk and walk, but Burton could see that he was slower.
Each day when she went to work she left him alone at her home, with ready-to-eat meals and snacks. But, as she prepared to take him back to his home in Michigan, she wondered if he could live on his own.
“That was my first time thinking that maybe he needs someone to come in every day,” she said. “He didn’t need a full-time person to watch him all of the time and be there overnight – just someone to check on him.”
Burton said she didn’t know what to do, so she started making calls on her father’s behalf.
“I didn’t have power of attorney, so I couldn’t call about Medicare because they wouldn’t talk to me,” she said. “And he was telling me that he didn’t need anybody, and he just wanted to go home.”
Burton decided to reach out to friends and colleagues for advice.
“The best thing that I did was to call people. Every step of the way I got help because people would connect me with someone who had been through this and could advise me,” she said.
One example was when she wanted to celebrate her father’s military career and could not decipher the medal codes on his discharge papers. She contacted the Veterans Resource Center at Tech, and David Ross helped her translate the codes. She also reached out to Robert Knotts in Tech’s Office of Government and Community Relations to get counsel on how to access benefits her father was due from Veterans Affairs.
She called a friend in her dad’s hometown as she searched for in-home care. After just a few calls, she was connected with a caregiver who was available and affordable.
“My second recommendation is to trust your instincts,” Burton said. “You are going to pay closer attention to your parents than anyone else will, even the doctor. I let the doctor know that I’m watching my dad every step of the way.”
Burton kept an eye on her dad’s medication, too.
“Seniors notoriously take their medication wrong – they forget to take it or they take too much,” she said. “I asked a friend who’s a registered nurse to review my dad’s medication and to help chart when each medication should be taken.”
She said that creating a precise schedule for taking his medicine made a big difference in her father’s quality of life.
Burton’s father, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, did not want to move to Atlanta. He insisted on staying in Michigan, in his home surrounded by personal items and a lifetime of memories.
“At the end of his life, I went to Michigan for one week every month, and Georgia Tech worked with me,” Burton said. “I had an office set up in his house. During that week, I could participate in important meetings via conference calls, Skype, FaceTime, or whatever. There was a period where people I worked with didn’t even know this was going on because I never missed a beat.”
With support from her manager and colleagues in the Office of Development, Burton maintained her hectic schedule for the last seven years of her father’s life.
Burton said that as the end of her dad’s life drew closer, she relied on her instincts to make the right decisions. Whenever a doctor recommended a particular course of treatment for her dad, she would ask the doctor: “What would you do if this was your dad?” She said that every time she posed that question, she got a straight answer that helped to inform her decision.
“I had to know in my heart that I was doing the right thing,” she said.
Burton’s father died in November 2016 of complications caused by Parkinson’s disease.