“My mom is getting older.” “My dad is losing his memory.” “My grandmother is no longer able to drive safely.” All of these statements are about one person, a mother, a father, a grandmother. This is how our society describes those who are aging around us and this is how our health care and support systems generally intervene. The semantics and practical responses to aging endorse a perception that we age in isolation.
A woman named Susan visits her family physician, Dr. Cook, with her daughter, Annie, who waits anxiously in the waiting room. After the exam with Susan, Dr. Cook calls his patient’s daughter into his office and asks to meet with her alone. Dr. Cook looks at Annie and says, “Your mother needs support at home. You need to arrange something,” and then Susan and her daughter are sent on their way. I understand. The doctor is treating his patient, not the family. But does this really work? Now Susan is left wondering what was said to her daughter and she is feeling vulnerable, scared and isolated. Annie is feeling overwhelmed and alone and she is lost as to where to start “arranging something” for her mother. This is not a recipe for a senior to be open to accept help from others or for an adult child to feel competent to take on the role of a caregiver. Susan is not aging in isolation with her daughter as a peripheral member of her life. They are aging together.
We age as a team and it takes a team to cope and to manage with the challenges (and joys) of aging. Our team consists of us, our parents, our children, other relatives, neighbors, each member of our health care system and our work environments. Due to the inherent strain caused by a lack of resources, lack of funds and in some regions a lack of qualified staff, our health, medical, and community care services cannot meet the demands of the aging population. On whom does the burden of care fall? Yes, the family. Even our semantics of aging are isolating. Take, for example, the word “burden”, which was used purposely by the author. It’s a term used to describe the result of caring for another person, and one that, in its meaning alone, creates a perception of negativity. What does this say about how we approach aging?
We must remember that most family caregivers do not have the luxury (if you call the stress of caregiving a luxury) to manage this responsibility full time. In fact, most caregivers are working at least part time while simultaneously organizing medical appointments, making meals, cleaning the home, managing medication, reviewing financial statements, and assisting their parents with personal hygiene care. All of these tasks are somehow accomplished over the weekend, after work or during work hours (to the dislike of the employer – another member of the team). Often these family caregivers have their own children – another team member – for whom they need to be available.
Yet, few individuals want to talk about the reality in which we live amongst our own families and the control of our aging process that we have. We complain about the system and wish that the funding and policies that support our systems worked efficiently and effectively. We complain to our friends about our children neglecting us or about our parents who refuse to accept help. Wouldn’t it be better if we all understood the continuum of aging and how each experience, transition, and crisis comes with a ricochet effect for all team members? Wouldn’t this perspective promote team aging?
If my mother falls ill and I have to fly to California to assist her for a month, will my employer give me time off? Will it be unpaid? If it is unpaid, how will I pay my expenses? Will I have my job when I return? Do I have to take money from my retirement account to cover the flight and a hotel since I cannot stay at my mother’s retirement home? How will my husband manage his job (which involves travel) and our children’s schedules while I am away? If he has to hire a babysitter frequently how will we pay for it now that my income has stopped for a month? Will my daughter have to miss her gymnastics competition? Will her gym let her stay on the team if she misses a meet? Will my son still be able to get to his tutor after school? Will my son’s grades drop and his stress level at school increase leading to behavioral problems and an intervention by his teacher? How will my husband find the time to take his mother to do her grocery shopping as he does each week if I am not with the kids? How will my mother-in-law’s health suffer if my husband is not as available? How will I fill my medication prescription when I’m in California? Will this lead to further health problems? If I need medical attention when I’m in California, how will I pay for it? How can I pay for my mother’s treatment since her husband is ill himself and is not able to manage the finances? Will her bank issue a check to the care provider on her behalf? Phew! Do you feel overwhelmed? I do and I haven’t even asked the questions related to my mother’s health, my relationship with my sister and my mother’s husband, their health, their finances, etc. Look at how one aging relative’s illness leads to a ricochet effect on the entire extended family. Can we really just say, “My mom is getting older,” and leave it at that?
Our team lacks insight. We have a lot of head chefs in the kitchen and very few sous chefs! We are each making independent decisions instead of thinking of each members’ role and how we can work together effectively. If our team deconstructed aging with a clear lens they would acknowledge (and hopefully respond) to what is right in front of us. Pretending we age alone is not working. Our medical systems are overburdened. Our financial support systems are fraying at the seams. Our families are overworked, overstressed, and exhausted. We are spinning our wheels trying to evaluate and respond to one system instead of relooking at aging with polished lenses.
The population is aging and soon our seniors will outnumber those who can take care of them. According to the U.S. Census bureau projections, by 2030 one in five Americans will be a senior citizen and by 2050 they will account for approximately 25% of the population. I am not saying anything that has not been revealed by every study done on aging. We all know that the future of an overburdened health care system, a lack of sustainable resources and an exhausted family system will break.
We need to shout louder. The rooftops is not enough high enough. Each family, each health care provider, each service provider, each health care system, and each employer must revisit how we think about and approach aging.