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Caring for Our Elders

By the time I learned that my mother was in trouble, she had fallen twice. It was only 9:30 AM. Westminster Oaks had tried to reach me both times on my preferred number, but it went straight to voice mail. Though I mean to be vigilant about having my phone within hearing range should they need to call me, mom has been doing so well lately that I had failed to do what I know is important for caregivers. They reached my husband, who had me called out of a meeting. I am so grateful for the persistence of the Westminster Oaks staff to find me.

I am also grateful for the FSU College of Medicine Senior Health Clinic at Westminster Oaks and their willingness to see mom so quickly. Avoiding hospital visits when at all possible is so important to persons living with dementia as it seems to add to their disorientation. After checking her thoroughly for any negative consequences of her falls, the clinic staff addressed her increased confusion by testing for a urinary tract infection (UTI).

As is far too common in the elderly population, the UTI is at least part of what has happened to my mother as she suddenly was not able to ambulate, speak, or comprehend. These infections are so debilitating for older people and can mimic dementia. For persons who have dementia, the confusion is more severe. After walking around the campus with mom as she used her rollator for a half mile walk and enjoying limited conversation with her just the evening before, what a frightening change to see her in this condition.

We have stayed with mom around the clock. Because of her dementia, it has been my goal to have persons she knows or, at the least, I know, to be with her as she is recovering from this UTI. So far this has worked out. Keeping her in her familiar surroundings at WMO is important and I appreciate their emphasis on encouraging aging in place. Her physician says that the infection should be cleared by the antibiotic after about five days. But the confusion and other deficits may not clear up for weeks, if they clear at all. I know that I will need reinforcements before then and that is but one of the many heartaches caregivers have in providing the care they desire for those they love.

I have heard often the African and or Native American proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I believe it takes a village to support our elders. As much as devoted adult children of parents want to provide for the many needs of the ones who nurtured them as children, it is the rare person who can do so alone, and then only at risk of personal health and relational issues.

The AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving report that we have more than 40 million unpaid caregivers in the United States caring for family members or loved ones. The average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who cares for an older relative, but as many as 25% of all caregivers are millennials of both genders. Currently the AARP calculates that there are seven potential family caregivers for each person over the age of eighty. But by 2030 that number is expected to dwindle to four and by 2050 the estimate is fewer than three as family size shrinks and our population grows older.

A number of agencies in our community are doing what they can to support caregivers and that is increasingly important. But often the demands of caring for a loved one are so overwhelming, people either fail to reach out or to find the time to research who might be of help. I am grateful for the friends and family members who have stepped up to assist me during this time and my heart goes out to those who feel alone in the effort to care for those who rely upon them.

Caregiving is a difficult but rewarding responsibility. The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that most caregivers indicate that if they had to do it over again, they would, and that has been my experience personally and with the many families I have observed in my years of ministry. Beyond the sense of doing what is right, some caregivers are able to heal or deepen a relationship in significant ways. Others are grateful to return to their loved one, the care and love they received from them. Still others find a sense of purpose in such an important role.

What I know is, caregivers need support. May we all offer encouragement to and prayers for those providing care for someone they love who needs them.