Mental load of eldercare

By our co-founder: Maja Paleka

They call us the sandwich generation.

We are having kids later in life and so before we have had a chance to take a breath from the stress of early childcare, eldercare kicks in. I call that a "shit sandwich". Or a lot of the time a "shitshow". There is no point sugar coating it…

My partner and I have been carers for two elderly women for a while – my partners mum and aunt. What we sometimes forget is involved in edercare is not only trying to always anticipate and look after their physical needs, but their emotional needs too. So it's not only about ensuring the shopping is done, and drs appts scheduled, transport organised and odd jobs around the house taken care of, but it is also thinking about when you called or visited last.

See, busy lives of families with kids mean sometimes we do not realise over a week has passed since we called last. A week for an elderly person living on their own is an eternity, so over that time their loneliness increases exponentially. Which inevitably leaves you feeling like you’re never doing enough. You thought parenting guilt was the only tough one – the elder care kind breaks your heart just as much.

And then my partner’s mum’s cancer diagnosis came. And the chaos and uncertainty went up even more. How do we care for someone that has been fiercely independent for the last 20 years, and now may need a lot of help? How do we support them emotionally, when they are going through a rollercoaster of emotions and deciding how they want to look at this situation themselves.

It is a lesson in patience. It is a lesson in love. It is a lesson in acceptance.

So, just when you thought the mental load that was at peak levels, it goes up even more. As cognitive capacity is a limited resource, you start noticing it in the balls you drop, in the silly mistakes you start making, in the inability to concentrate, and in shortness of temper.

We are now 7 months into this journey, and things are by no means great. Every day is a new dip or peak in the rollercoaster, but we have learned some incredible coping mechanisms.

Things that are helping are:

Being aware that from the beginning we could fall into some deeply gendered norms – even though it is not my mum who is sick I found myself wanting to take the lead on her care. Feeling like it is my job to look after her. We had a long conversation about this and established clarity of how we will work: Steve taking lead on things, and me as support crew.

Not being afraid to ask for help – whether that is friends or family or professional service providers. Cleaners are in place, we have a WhatsApp group in the family for rides for appointments, shopping etc.

Weekly huddles – we use this time not only to align on who is doing and owning what, but also to discuss long term big things, as well as how we are coping. It has been such an emotionally exhausting time and we both are finding a deep need to talk about it.

Acknowledgment of the messy – we are constantly reminding each other that this is messy, this is hard, that we will not be able to get everything right, and that we will have some strange arse feelings through this all. And that all of that is ok.

Self-care – I know it can feel like a trite thing to say, but we now know that we need to make time to walk, sleep and get out in the sun. That is all we are aiming for. And that even in that we will not always do as much of it as we need, but

Arming yourself with knowledge on the support services that the health and government system are offering. From palliative care nurses that you can call at any time of day or night for a question when you are just unsure, to services that can help you with adjustments at home, to financial and wellbeing support and care for my mother-in-law. Take the time and get to know what is out there. It is not always easy to find but it is incredible how much there is.

We also have researched platforms that you can hire carers for in case we get stuck when work is intense or if we need to travel but need someone to help. Fully recommend understanding how things work before you are desperate and need to book someone as you feel much more prepared, and it takes the stress away if you needed to use them.

We’re not going to sugar coat it - the care sandwich you may find yourself in is going to be hard – often. But just like childcare, eldercare brings perspective to what is truly important in life, and if you can accept the messy and the imperfect it provides an opportunity for deepening of connection. And isn’t that all we are all here for anyway?