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Caregiving for Aging Parents: 7 Lessons Learned

caregiving for elderly parentsLiz runs the website Working Daughter. This post was originally featured there.

The other day I was talking to a woman who is trying to run a business while caring for her ailing mother. “It sounds like you’ve had some experience with sick, elderly parents,” she said. Indeed. I told her about the summer when both of my parents got sick and were diagnosed with terminal illnesses on the same day. I told her how I had to take time off from work, even though I am the breadwinner. I told her how I felt like I abandoned my children for months while I figured out my parents’ situations. I told her how things finally settled down and that even though I am still a caregiver, my situation is much more manageable – right now. “What did you learn?” she asked me. Great question.

In no particular order, here are the lessons I learned while caring for my elderly parents:

  1. Invest in the right services. When my parents both got sick, they had to leave their homes and move to two different facilities. I had some sense of their finances because my husband had been handling their bills for a while. But I did not have a clear picture of just how much money they did or did not have and therefore where they could afford to live and for how long. As a result, I was very nervous about spending any money – theirs and mine. But when a friend referred me to an elder care attorney, I paid his fee, despite what felt like a big price tag. It was money well spent. He was able to sort out my parents’ financial situation more quickly than I could, and counsel me on how best to spend and protect their assets. He was also able to help me file for benefits that I would never have known about without him.
  2. Don’t procrastinate. I am excellent at procrastinating. A real pro. But when it comes to caregiving, you have to tackle things as they come up. Because the thing about caregiving is that it is wildly unpredictable. You cannot plan when someone will get sick or fall, or mess up the remote control or accidentally disconnect their phone and need you to come over. And if you’re juggling caregiving with anything else – like your own life or career, you can’t count on having time tomorrow to get something important done. It may feel restrictive not to have any goof-off time, but actually staying on top of tasks frees you up for quality downtime. True relaxation stems from knowing you’re doing your best.
  3. Prepare to miss work. If you’re at the point in caregiving where you need lots of flexibility at work, create a system to ensure the work still gets done. You could ask your boss for a buddy at work who can back you up when you’re out. You can keep a list of open items, passwords and other pertinent information on the server so that your coworkers can take over your assignments. You can suggest a flex schedule so you can work around your caregiving schedule. Whatever you do, make a plan. Caregiving is disruptive to your career. It’s your job to minimize those disruptions.
  4. Pace yourself. When you are in the throes of caregiving, you may not have time in your life for much else. It can be incredibly frustrating to defer a dream – especially for a role you probably never imagined or wanted. And you may feel hopeless, like life as you knew it is over. I remember thinking that by the time I was done being a caregiver, I would need a caregiver. Try to be forgiving of yourself and your situation. All you need to do is stay in the game; you don’t need to win it. You will come through the process and new opportunities will present themselves. For example, I have met at least 10 women in the last year who have started new companies and careers as a result of their caregiving experiences. New opportunities will present themselves.
  5. Learn to ask for help. If you have issues with asking for help, this is the time to get over it. Keep this in mind: people want to be useful. By allowing them to help you, you are actually giving them a gift. Helping, in even the littlest way, gives people a sense of control. Remember that this can be comforting. Keep the following things with you at all times: a list of things you need, sticky notes, thank you cards and stamps. Whenever someone asks, “How can I help,” choose an item from the list, note their name next to it, give them their assignment. Be sure to send them a thank you when you have some downtime.
  6. Remember that doctors are your allies, not your friends. Yes, you want to partner with your parents’ medical team and ideally create a strong working relationship with them, but your job is not to make friends with them. Your job is to be an advocate for your parents. That means it is appropriate to question the care team and to be assertive in seeking answers and attention.
  7. Accept people strengths and weaknesses. If you are trying to manage your parents’ needs with the help of your siblings, or other relatives and friends, play to their strengths and move past their weaknesses. Now is not the time to try to fix your younger brother. If his organizational skills are nonexistent, do not ask him to coordinate the care team or organize the move to assisted living. You will just be disappointed. Give him something else to do.

What about you, reader? Do you have any recommendations from your caregiving experiences?

Liz O'Donnell

Liz O’Donnell is a working daughter and working mother committed to helping other women as they balance their many roles in life. She is the author of the book Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman. An award-winning blogger, you can find more of her work at To reach Liz, email her at

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