June 12, 2011

Caring for aging parents can overwhelm

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SACO -- When Alexandra Perrin was told her mother had Alzheimer's disease, she knew they both needed help.

Her mother could no longer safely live at her home in Old Orchard Beach. But she had become frustrated and angry when living with Perrin and wanted to be independent.

Perrin, meanwhile, was an only child working full time and living two hours away in Brookline, Mass. She needed help navigating the medical, legal, financial and emotional maze of caring for an aging, ill parent.

"It's overwhelming," Perrin said. "I said, 'I don't know how to do this. I cannot do this by myself.'"

That overwhelmed feeling is a familiar one for a growing number of adults who are becoming full-time caregivers for parents with dementia or other age-related health conditions.

But, as Perrin found out, there is help out there. With the nation's oldest population, Maine has an expanding network of support services, from free counseling, caregiver classes and support groups to full-service professional care managers.

Getting help to everyone who needs it is already a big challenge, with an estimated one-third of the workforce now caring for another adult. And it is sure to get even more challenging as members of the baby boom generation begin turning to their own children for care. Alzheimer's alone affects more than 30,000 Mainers and their families, and the number is expected to triple over the next 40 years.

Experts see it as an approaching health crisis for the caregivers as well as their aging parents.

"Caregivers, we known for a fact, are more likely to be in real poor health themselves. They are more likely to be depressed. They are more likely to use alcohol and prescription drugs," said Lenard Kaye, director of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. "It's physically hard. It's mentally hard. It's financially draining. It puts stress on all aspects of your life."

And when caregivers are overwhelmed, both they and their parents are more likely to end up in doctor's offices, hospitals or nursing homes.

"Caregivers without help are at a loss," Kaye said. "They're unprepared to do that."

The biggest barrier to getting outside support, experts say, is the fact that caregivers often don't know what help is out there. And some, especially men and older caregivers, don't want to ask for it.

Struggling with care

By the time Perrin heard the word "Alzheimer's" she was already struggling to care for her mother.

A geriatric nurse recommended a Portland-based senior care consultant, Beach Glass Transitions.

The company guides families through the transition to home care, assisted living or nursing care and charges a fee depending on the help it provides. Several months of intensive consultation can cost about $3,000. Many of its clients, like Perrin, are long-distance caregivers, a common but especially complicated situation.

Perrin, who works in a salon in downtown Boston, remembers holding a cell phone to her ear explaining to her mother that she was at work and couldn't come right over while at the same time giving a Brazilian bikini wax to a client with her free hand.

The investment in professional help saved money in the long run and allowed her to keep working and pay for her mother's care in Maine, Perrin said.

"The first time you buy a home, you don't know how to do it, so you go to a Realtor," Perrin said. It's the same thing with caring for an aging parent, except that the stakes are higher and it's much more complicated and emotional, she said.

"You can't make a mistake. It's your mother," Perrin said. "You need someone who knows the ins and outs."

(Continued on page 2)

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