margot-gardeningEditor's note: a version of this post was published in our column in the Concord Journal.

“She’s running me ragged!” A client said that to me recently, speaking not of her small child but rather of her aging mother. A dutiful daughter, she finds herself sometimes overwhelmed with the tasks of caring for an aging parent. It is a common conundrum: how do we care for aging parents while maintaining sanity in our own full lives?

How long will it last?

One important criterion when you care for an elder is how long the current condition will last. If someone had a hip replacement, your role is time-bounded and the strategy is to be sure you have enough resources to weather a short-term crunch.

But sometimes the caregiving lasts for years, as with chronic conditions like COPD or with Parkinson’s Disease. In these cases, learning to manage your own stress is as important as being sure that Mom gets to the next medical appointment. A good maxim is to remember the admonition before each airline flight: put on your own oxygen mask first – you are no good to anyone if you pass out. Remember you are in a marathon, not a sprint.

Signs of Caregiver Stress

Signs of stress are surprisingly easily to ignore. If you are anxious or irritable continually, it is tempting to think, “That’s just the way it has to be now,” but this is often a sign of care-related stress. To be sure, grief will be part of the process, but grief is different from stress.

Sleeplessness, or sleeping too much, combine with anxiety and irritability as indicators and aggravators of stress. The spiral can lead to full-blown depression in severe cases. In particular, if you find that you avoid your time devoted to favorite activities, be on the lookout for ways to return to them. Do not let a caregiving role eliminate that which sustains you. You need it, and your loved one needs you to be replenished.

Know What You Can Do

Since you will not be able to everything, select your role deliberately. Depending upon your other commitments, your relationship with the elder, and your own personality, some tasks will fit more easily for you. If your loved one needs personal care (help bathing and toileting, for example), you may decide that is a role best filled by others while you focus on grocery shopping, getting bills paid, and doctor’s visits. Or if you find the personal care rewarding, do that and let others handle remaining tasks.

Above all, be on the lookout for guilt. You may be the favorite caregiver for an elder, but you cannot do it all. You are entitled to set boundaries that work for you over the long term. You elder is likely grieving himself, and may be afraid or confused. “Getting old,” as Bette Davis said, “is not for sissies.” But although you can do chores for loved ones, you cannot bear their burdens. Know what you can do, then set your limits and offer your services with love.

Request – and Accept! – Help

Do not shrink from asking for help. This may be from other family members and friends, your faith community or local senior center, or professional caregivers. Perhaps an adult day center is appropriate while you go about your day’s business, or a neighbor can check daily to be sure that meds have been taken on time. Being part of a team of people working together to support an elder has its own rewards; it reduces your isolation, and it relieves your stress.

Include Remote Family Members

If you have siblings or others who live at a distance, work to include them in any task that does not require physical presence. Delegate! Money management and household vendor management, even talking to doctors and coordinating heath care providers, can all be handled remotely. Do not hesitate to ask for help; remote family members often want to know what they can do (and they have obligations even if they don’t).

Use Local Resources

Take classes and seminars related to the condition of the person you care for. A local hospital probably has some, or the Red Cross, the Alzheimer’s Association, or similar group. You will find helpful hints and meet others dealing with the same issues you face.

Get Out of the House with a Friend

Remain connected socially to your friends – outside the care setting. Even if it is just a walk, get out together. A meal is better, and better still is a shared hobby or activity. Schedule it each week, and arrange for care from someone else that day if necessary.

Above all, remember that help is available, and you are not alone. Elder care can be taxing, stressful, and sad. But it can be rewarding, even so. Taking care of yourself and asking for help will make it easier.