Caregiving All By Yourself: The Only Child Caring For Aging Parents
Tag, you're it! As an only child, from the time you were born you were your parents' one and only. Be it toys or attention, you never had to share. You were "it" when you were young, and now you're "it" when it comes to helping your aging parents.
What a place to be in. Some with brothers and sisters who bicker about what's to be done, or who don't help at all but want to tell the caring one how thing should be done, would say you have it easy. You don't have to report to anyone. What you decide needs to be done, and how it gets done, is up to you and only you. Some would say, "How lucky you are!"
Yet, you know there's a downside to being "it:" It's the fact that you're it. There is no one you can talk it over with, no one who might give you a little emotional or financial support, no brother or sister to take over for a while, or spend time with your parents so you can get away or have a little down time.
As an only child there is a good chance that you've always known that you would be "it" when your parents aged. You may have even consciously, or subconsciously, arranged your life so that you could be a caregiver when the time came.
Studies have shown that most only children mature faster than children who are part of a larger family unit. If you recognize it for what it is, your maturity, and a well-developed sense of responsibility can stand you in good stead as a caregiver.
On the other hand, if your sense of responsibility inclines you toward moving heaven and earth to personally fulfill all your parents' needs and expectations, just as you tried to do as a child, you will eventually meet certain defeat.
The most successful only child caregivers know that because they don't have siblings to help, they must have their own personal team ready to go earlier than some other caregivers might. They know that if their parents live long enough they may eventually need companion services, housekeeping and home maintenance help, visiting nurse services, and ultimately alternative living options. They know that no one human being can be or do all these things, and so they start looking early for support. While they may not actually book services, they make it a point to learn what's available and how to put things in place when necessary.
The most successful only child caregivers also know that they will probably meet strong resistance from their parents when it's time to begin using these services. After all, they have been "it" their whole lives. Most say that they wish they had been clearer with their parents that there would come a time, and what the triggers would probably be. All say that they simply had no choice, and almost all say that they waited too long because of anxiety over their parents' objections.
As an only child you don't have anyone to delegate your search for support to. If you don't have friends with caregiving experience one of the best places to start looking is your local Area Agency on Aging.
Another resource is a caregiver support group, if you can find one. Unfortunately, most support groups are sponsored by Alzheimer's and other dementia organizations. If you are caring for parents with other health or aging issues, a more general support group may be difficult to locate. Again, your AoA may be useful, as may the senior centers and the larger faith-based organizations in your parents' area. If you live "away," always begin your search with organizations in your parents' geography.
Because you are "it," your first responsibility is to maintain your own health and sanity so you can oversee your parents' current and future needs. If you crash and burn, they will have no one. For their sakes, as well as yours, you must reach out even before you think it's really necessary. If you don't, life may well intervene and you won't have the chance to start getting your eldercare support team together before you have an emergency or a health issue of your own, and it's too late.