Who cares for the caregivers?

Who cares for the caregivers?

Members of ‘sandwich generation’ struggle to balance child rearing with needs of aging parents

Ben Deutsch with his mother, Dr. Cynthia Deutsch, and his daughter Katie.  Photo courtesy Ben Deutsch
Ben Deutsch with his mother, Dr. Cynthia Deutsch, and his daughter Katie. Photo courtesy Ben Deutsch

One recent weekend, Ben Deutsch raced from driving his 17-year-old daughter to a horseback riding lesson to packing his 91-year-old mother’s possessions — for her move from an assisted living facility to a nursing home in Chatham — to taking his seat at the JCC MetroWest for a play in which his 9-year-old daughter was performing.

“It was the perfect storm, and it happens a lot,” said Deutsch, a lawyer who lives in Maplewood.

Deutsch is one of many caught in the “sandwich generation” juggle of simultaneously raising children and caring for aging parents. It is a responsibility that can take a significant toll on the caregiver, said Dr. Judy Kramer, a clinical psychologist in Colts Neck who specializes in parenting and women’s issues. “Those who do the caregiving can really pay a price with their physical and emotional health.”

Caregivers often experience a range of feelings that can include sadness, exhaustion, anger, helplessness, resentment, and burnout, Kramer said. Taking care of the people who once cared for you, coupled with confronting one’s own mortality, can be especially emotionally taxing. Many ask themselves, according to Kramer, “Am I doing enough? Am I getting it right? It’s shocking how easy it is to get self-critical.”

Kramer recently led an event in Monmouth County called “Sanity for the Sandwich Generation,” sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. The dozen or so women who attended the event discussed how to handle conflict with family members over providing care for aging parents and recounted their long hours behind the wheel driving children and parents to appointments and activities. They also praised their friends for being there to listen when they expressed overwhelming feelings of frustration and guilt.

The Marlboro Jewish Center Sisterhood also recently gathered community members for a discussion of the topic, facilitated by a social worker. “So many people are in the same boat, and they don’t know where to turn,” said Janine Zaslavsky, who is co-president of the sisterhood and works in the nursing home industry. She told NJJN she noticed a growing need for caregiver resources and often receives calls from friends seeking advice.

“It’s important to discuss what options are available and to be prepared before it happens,” she said of the time when children need to start bearing some responsibility for their aging parents, “even though people don’t want to think about it.”

Caregiving duties often fall hardest on women, according to Kramer, but men also find themselves handling the day-to-day responsibilities of helping aging parents while they still have children at home. For Deutsch, workdays can be especially hectic when his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, makes demands of his time.

“I was giving a presentation and she called 10 times in a row,” said Deutsch. “If I don’t pick up, she keeps calling. Elderly parents can revert to being childlike, and children are children. Sometimes I’m having the same kind of conversation with two sides separated by 80 years.”

But Deutsch is grateful, he said, that he has “a wife who is a terrific partner, understanding work colleagues, and flexibility in my schedule.”

When Michelle Winters’ father was ailing, the Ocean resident found “it was hard for me to get over being the caregiver, doing things for my father you never thought you’d have to do,” she said. To counter those thoughts, “I tried to remember the positive, that I made him happy.”

There are numerous programs that offer assistance for caregivers and the elderly at Jewish Family Service organizations throughout the state. The Aging in Place program at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County offers help for adult children who live out of town and need assistance coordinating care for their parents. The Elder Care program at Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County provides the elderly with a two-hour program so that caregivers can get a break.

Many organizations offer services for adult children to discuss geriatric care such as government aid, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes. The Care Consultation program at Jewish Family Service of MetroWest New Jersey provides free, ongoing assistance over the telephone to aging recipients and their caregivers. Several programs offer food delivery through Meals on Wheels and volunteer programs that bring friendly visitors to clients’ homes. And there is also individual and family counseling for adult children and their aging parents.

Kramer cautioned caregivers to look for signs that they are getting overwhelmed or are experiencing what’s known as compassion fatigue. They should also prioritize taking breaks, shelving less important responsibilities, delegating care when possible, and talking it out with friends.

She advises caregivers to “practice self-care. Take downtime for yourself, and give yourself things to look forward to.” And try to savor “tender moments of love or gratitude or reminiscing.” When Ocean resident Mindy Wiser-Estin felt exhausted caring for her father during his final illness, it made her feel better to realize “this is finite, and there will be closure,” Wiser-Estin said.

For Deutsch, juggling care for his mother and three daughters has provided his children with “a life lesson about the importance of honoring and caring for one’s parents,” he said. “You’re modeling how we treat family members. One day you are going to be the one they are taking care of.”

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