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Living longer means seniors often care for parents

Carol Bradley Bursack, Forum columnist Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Dear Carol: My husband and I are in our 70s and both have some health problems. We've been taking care of my 94-year-old mother in our home for several years. Mom needs help eating, and she also needs to be transferred to a wheelchair, to the toilet and to bed. We do have equipment for transfers, but it's still wearing.

We have a part-time caregiver come in for a few hours but can't afford full-time care, and my siblings are worse than no help. They lay on the guilt when we talk about moving Mom to a nursing home because, in their view, nursing homes are no good. My husband and I can't go anywhere and have begun to feel trapped. Mom says she wants to stay with us. She's developed Alzheimer's symptoms these last few years and her doctor says a memory unit is best for her, but I feel that I'm fighting the family as well as Mom, and I hate the guilt. Either way, we seem to lose. — MW

Dear MW: I can't tell you how sorry I am for the situation that you and your husband are in. Your lives illustrate an increasing problem in society. We're averaging longer lifespans but not necessarily longer health spans.

I'm convinced that if you talked with your doctor, and your husband talked with his, they'd advise you both that you need to find other care for your mother. Even for healthy people at your age, the physical strain would be hard. Your mental health is at risk as well.

Because your siblings aren't helping, you have every right to make this decision so you can inform them and leave it at that. Handling your mother's fear of moving to a memory unit may be more difficult, but her reaction is not unusual for anyone her age faced with change, let alone someone who has Alzheimer's symptoms.

Check with your mom's doctor for specifics about presenting the change to her. He knows her cognitive state best.

My suggestion would be that if your mom can still communicate well, then tell her that your own health is deteriorating and that you and your husband can no longer handle the physical part of her care. Reassure her that you'll visit often and be her advocate, but younger bodies will need to do the lifting and hands-on care, which is safer for everyone.

If your mom's dementia is too advanced for her to grasp this concept, then my feeling is that you should get her memory care room set up ahead of time. Bring furnishings from her current setting even if you need to strip a few things from your home to make her feel more comfortable in her facility room. Then, you'll just have to make the move.

This is all going to be hard but it's necessary or you and/or your husband may need caregivers even while your mom is alive. That situation wouldn't help anyone.

Carol Bradley Bursack is an established columnist, blogger, and the author of a support book on caregiving. She hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at Carol can be reached at