Pivotal eldercare year closes

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In many ways, 2013 will be remembered as a pivotal year in the evolution of the brave new world of eldercare in the family.

In Canada, this year marked the start of a more open discussion of the moral and ethical implications of assisted suicide for the willing aging and ill. It marked the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that a family’s decision to maintain it’s ill loved one on life support trumps the verdict of health care experts.

This year saw more media attention to the challenges families face in offering care and attention to the aging elderly.

As well, during 2013 we saw more reports of violence in nursing homes: elderly attacking elderly, suggesting cognitive issues not yet really defined, not to mention questions of safety standards in nursing homes across the country.

Globally, the Canadian experience is being repeated over and over most everywhere. Perhaps its being most strongly felt in China and Japan where the aging population can no longer count on the sustained support of their children and grandchildren who are moving away from the traditional family home to find better jobs and brighter lifestyles.

Strikes close to home

Personally, this past year I’ve been in some way or shape engaged in a host of situations experienced by many friends involving some aspect of family care and resulting pressures and conflicts. Here are four examples:

• A couple with a son who returned home six months ago ‘for just a few weeks’ after losing his job and with no firm new prospect while concurrently looking after three aging and frail parents and all the while still both working full time. They are struggling to make ends meet and keep getting up five days a week to long, long work days. They don’t know where all this leads; they’re too loving to challenge their son to be more proactive in getting back on his feet, and too loving to find better solutions to eldercare.

•  A 71 year old bachelor with a 94 year old ailing mother who still lives alone in a tiny apartment and is suffering from severe arthritis and mild diabetes; they live in the same region but he’s an hour’s drive away while expected to visit at least four or five times a week. And because both are strapped financially, he feels compelled to come help her, clean her apartment, and of course has to run errands for her and take her for doctor’s appointments. Problem is, while he’s in relatively good health, he’s got little time left to live his own life.

• A couple in their early sixties in Toronto with both sets of parents still alive: one set in their early eighties and one in their latter eighties. What complicates their lives and stretches their resources is that her parents live in Kamloops and his in Halifax. Trying to provide long distance loving attention to both sets of parents is becoming ever more difficult and expensive for them. They have committed to at least annual visits to each set of parents and have been working on finding local support resources to help out.

• A friend in his mid seventies whose wife has been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s and has lost her driving license while they still need to find ways to support her 94 year old mother in a close by nursing home who demands a lot of time and attention. He is starting to fray at the edges as he juggles his wife’s expanding needs, his mother-in-law’s continuing needs, his relations with his children and grandchildren, and the need for time for himself.

The common denominator

What all these friends and acquaintances share is the element of an aging and ever more needy parent. And it’s what growing numbers of Canadians are experiencing. More than four million of them, in fact. And hundreds of millions more worldwide.

It’s what’s come from being hidden on the back streets of society to finally blasting onto main street: the monumental range of issues and challenges of eldercare in the family. We’re all listening now, experiencing it, starting to share it, finally learning how to deal with it.

The warning signs have been there for more than a decade, but we’ve elected to ignore them. Now we don’t have a choice. Now we share the enormous challenge of finding better and more ways to care for the elderly in humane and responsible ways.

It’s not easy. And that’s been a major lesson this year.

In my last column I focused on my new co-authored book, Parenting Your Parents: Straight Talk about Aging in the Family. Now, you can win a copy of the book. In this issue of Hospital News you will find an announcement on how you can win a copy. Actually, it’s pretty easy. You just have to subscribe for a digital subscription of Hospital News with your email address. Five copies are to be awarded.

Please enter. It’s a really good book, even if I say so. And I say so with some pride because the publisher just advised my co-author, Dr. Michael Gordon, and me that we’re about to go into a second printing just two months after the book appeared on the market. How sweet is that?

And in closing for this column, I wish you and your loved ones the best of health and happiness for the coming year.