It’s a fact of life at our age that few of us can ignore: our parents may suddenly lose their independence we took for granted for so long.
As middle-aged children now, we can literally wake up one day and find ourselves thrust into the position of part-time, or full-time carer to Mum, or Dad.
There’s no guide-book, or manual. The dynamic just changes overnight and you’re left to figure it all out, often under enormous stress.
The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that Australia has more than 2.7 million people in an unpaid caring role.
But there are steps you can take to prevent feeling overwhelmed, says Kevin Zahra, Director, Client Services at Northside Community Forum, a Sydney-based not-of-profit with 30 years supporting people with disability, mental illness, and older people and their carers.
Below are some of his key points to remember.
1. Get the relevant information now
Understanding a medical condition is vital, he says. Any carer should find out:
- What does this health problem entail?
- How will the condition develop, what treatment and what medicines are available?
- Who are good doctors, good hospitals?
- How to find medical information that is clear, reliable and applies to the particular situation at hand? The problem is not that there is not enough information, the problem is that there is too much information, he says.
- Information re entitlements and services for patient and carer
- Information concerning Centrelink payments – what is the recipient entitled to, how to apply for the relevant payments? How to use the system in the best way? And in some cases: what does the market offer?
Kevin says that quite often carers do not realise that there are also certain provisions for themselves and because they do not know, they do not apply for them. The earlier you can find out, the better, he says.
2. Look after No.1
As a carer, your health and well-being can suffer. It’s very important to look after yourself and this includes exercising, eating and sleeping well, and taking time out. Caring can be physically and psychologically very demanding. Quite often carers have not had any training for this “job”, and because they do not know how to do the work properly they may incur problems. For instance, they may get a back injury trying to get a person out of bed or it might be a mental strain. Carers often feel they are needed around the clock as there might not be anyone else available to do the caring, so they ignore any symptoms and try to avoid seeing their GP or postpone necessary treatment.
3. Look after your relationships
Carers often have to deal with strong emotions, which can spill out into other relationships outside their caring role. Ways in which you can help look after your other relationships are:
- Respite – consider organising respite care so that you can take some time out for yourself.
- Relationship counselling – a counsellor will listen to you without judging.
4. Stay involved
Caring for someone means you might miss out on being with friends and making new friends so many carers feel socially isolated.
Kevin says you should consider:
- Creating routines – setting regular times to spend with your family and friends.
- Family meetings – schedule regular family meetings where everyone can air their thoughts and feelings without being judged.
- Taking time out – during stressful or difficult times, it is even more important than usual to have time to relax.
5. Make a financial plan
Irrespective of which payment the carer’s family will receive, families who care for a person with a disability experience a higher level of financial hardship than the general population.
You may be going from two incomes to one, or losing your income altogether so now is an important time to put your finances under the microscope, says Kevin.
Look at what you have coming in now, what your bills and outgoings are and what you’re saving (or not saving).
Do you have superannuation which you need to roll over?
Do you have money owed to you? Or have you got some hefty debts to settle?
6. Talk to your boss
Many carers stop working when their caring roles become so complex and they simply cannot combine caring with their work responsibilities. Speak to your organisation about the future demands on you in your caring role and how the organisation can help you to manage both. Discuss working from home, job-share, or working part-time options.
7. Create a life plan
If you’re not sure where to start perhaps chat with a loved one and write down all the things you hope to achieve in the next year, five years or in your lifetime, advises Kevin. It could include ambitions like a promotion at work or moving to an area you’ve always wanted to live. Or personal goals like spending time with a partner or practicing mindfulness.
8. Consider private health or life insurance
If you have life insurance, review your policy details and be sure to know what you are and not covered for. Caring can place a physical and psychological strain and you may require medical support. Make sure you are covered. It also helps fill the financial gap if any injury puts you out of action for a while.