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Posted: July 31, 2008

Tips for Helping Families with Children

When Kids Are Caught in Caregiving's Shuffle

When her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Jen Desmond immediately began looking for an assisted living facility for her mom to live in. There was a six-month wait, so Jen temporarily moved her mother into her own home in Andover, Massachusetts, where she lived with her husband Jack and their young daughters, Bess, age 7, and Lily, age 5.

Immediately, Jen felt the strain that many caregivers in the so-called “Sandwich Generation” feel -- wondering how to be both a good daughter to her mother and a good mother to her young daughters. “It was like having another child in the house, except that Mom actually required more help and supervision than the girls. My girls would be asking for my attention, but I felt like I couldn’t give it to them. It felt as though I was constantly being tugged in different directions and not giving my best to anyone.”

Even worse, though, was dealing with an unexpected and unhealthy dynamic that developed between Grandma and young Lily. Grandma’s illness manifested itself in child-like behavior that was often inappropriate. Bess, now 10, explained, “I saw Grandma make faces at Lily and stick her tongue out at her. Sometimes she whispered things in Lily’s ear and made her cry. I always went and told Mom right away.”

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Jen elaborated: “I knew that it was the disease and that Mom couldn’t help it. But I was trying to teach my kids good manners and then they see a grown-up behaving like a naughty child! I did my best to explain to them that Grandma was sick and didn’t understand what she was doing, but it was pretty tough. And I felt so bad for Lily, who felt as though her safe and secure home had been invaded.”

Now Jen worries that Grandma’s brief stay has had lingering effects. “Bess has become so protective of Lily, and Lily is still wary of overnight visitors. Even when her favorite cousins visit, Lily always asks me how soon they are going to leave!”

Kids Aren’t Meant to be Caregivers

Diane Cameron is the director of Community Caregivers in Altamont, New York, a volunteer caregiving program that has tackled some of the issues that “sandwiched” caregivers like Jen face.

“We started our Caregivers, Kids & Families program because we saw how many families were being affected,” Diane said. “On the one hand, it’s great for kids to see the family values that accompany caring for a loved one, to see that this is what family does for each other and to be part of that. But we don’t want the experience to rob them of just being kids.”

Diane says she’s actually learned a lot about what constitutes appropriate involvement for children in the caregiving environment by learning what not to do. “I think the biggest counsel I would give to Mom and Dad caregivers out there is that kids should be involved only as helpers to the caregiver, and not as caregivers themselves.”

Diane’s concern is affirmed by the results of a 2005 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving, which showed that kids who are thrust into caregiving roles are likely to feel sad and unable to express their feelings about the situation.

Tips for Involving and Protecting Kids

In spite of the challenges, family caregiving can be a positive experience. Diane recommends trying these suggestions to make it a good one for you and your children:

Develop strategies to free up your time. Finding time for yourself and time with your kids will be a challenge, but there are ways to find relief. Possibilities include finding an adult day facility for your loved one, paying for home health care or utilizing volunteer caregiving programs like Community Caregivers. Call the Area Agency Eldercare Hotline at (800) 677-1116 for a list of caregiving service providers in your area.

Conduct family meetings.Encourage your spouse and children to talk about everything that is going on in their lives, including what it’s like now that Mom and Dad are caring for another family member.

Acknowledge your children’s fears and reassure them. Children will be afraid that because Grandma got sick, you will too. If you need help talking with your kids about these issues, the Alzheimer’s Association at (800) 272-3900 or the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at (800) 344-4867 have helpful booklets that can guide you.

Find appropriate ways for kids to help. When asking kids to help, apply this standard: If the loved one wasn’t ill, would you let the child perform the task? A Grandpa with dementia may act like a child. But if he wasn’t ill, you wouldn’t let your child help you bathe him, so don’t do it now. Stick to having kids help with the kind of chores that you might have them do whether Grandpa was ill or not – things like cleaning up, helping with meals or keeping company with Grandpa.

Watch your own words and signals. Are you stressed, angry or moody? How do you speak to your elderly loved one? How do you speak to your husband and kids? Children will pick up on both verbal and non-verbal cues, so try to be aware of yours.

Spotting Signs of Trouble

Signs that children are not coping well with the situation typically manifest themselves in behavioral changes. Here are some of the common ones to watch for:

If your child exhibits any of these signs or shows other changes in behavior, immediately talk to them about what is going on or find professional counselors to talk with them, if needed.

Family life will change when you become someone’s caregiver, but those changes don’t have to be detrimental to you or your children. Taking steps to manage your own time, coupled with involving and communicating appropriately with the children, can make the situation better for everyone.

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Melissa A. Goodwin is a freelance writer and photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has years of experience working with volunteer caregiving programs that help seniors and family caregivers. She can be reached at meesarj@msn.com.

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