by Donna Scrafano
The word “caretaker,” as defined in the Webster II New Riverside University Dictionary, reads: “One employed to look after goods, property or another person: Custodian.” Oh, if only the tasks of caretaking were as clear-cut as this definition.
In mid autumn, there was a family decision—and, as I see it, an order from the Universe—for me to take early retirement to care for my elderly father. It was a decision that created a whirlwind of changes. Within two weeks my full-time employment ended, and soon my house was sold. I also had some updates and repairs made on the family home prior to my arrival.
So, late in November, I moved in with my elderly father and took on the responsibility of caring for him. The first few months consisted primarily of learning how to co-exist. Although it was not safe for my father to live alone, he still had some degree of independence: he was able to do personal tasks, and he was still driving. I had lived by myself for many years, so suddenly sharing space with another adult with his own fixed habits was a big change for me.
Only four months later, my father developed congestive heart failure and pneumonia. He also needed a new pacemaker. During his recovery, other issues were discovered. These were something of a blessing in disguise, however, in that they forced my father to become more flexible and more obedient to his doctors’ advice. This made my job a lot easier.
My father had almost fully recovered when, in May 2016, he fell and fractured a neck vertebra. Although he recovered well from this, the long-term effect has been to make him totally dependent on me.
The roles one takes on when caretaking include: medical advocate, nurse, insurance broker, accountant, nutritionist, protector, housemaid, decision maker, and professional shopper (food, clothing, supplies, etc.). When caring for a parent, it becomes even more challenging because the roles have reversed. The person who once cared for you is now being cared for by you. It took quite some time for my mind and emotions to adjust. And on top of that, there is the sadness and regret of watching a parent, as I call it, “fade.”
I have worked my entire professional life in Human Services. I have provided direct services, managed multiple programs simultaneously, and spent many years, as an administrator. But nothing I did during my career comes close to the demands of being sole caretaker for my father. It is, in my opinion, the equivalent of working two full-time jobs, without paid time off. I had to re-educate myself on so many levels.
One of the challenges, which I had no previous experience in, was maneuvering through the Medicare Advantage insurance plan my father had in 2016. After countless hours and thirty pages of documentation, I won two appeals. I afterward switched my father to a supplemental plan that works like a charm. Advocating for the one you are care-taking is vital. And it’s constant. The world, unfortunately, is full of systems and people that prey on vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly. So you must be the eyes, ears, and most of all the voice of those you are caring for.
I made sure I found support systems. I contacted the local Bureau on Aging, enrolled my father in an Adult Day Program, and was also able to enlist the help of a retired Certified Nursing Assistant. For a while, I worked a part-time job but it became too cumbersome as my father’s needs became greater.
In addition to the challenges that come with the caring for another human being, there is the challenge of making sure one takes care of oneself. Being a caretaker requires a self-care plan. I have always coached women to keep their self-care a top priority. I evidently lost sight of this advice for myself. But I finally did sit down and created a care-taking plan for myself. So now I make sure to take time for myself—to rest, exercise, and read. I try to see other people. And I watch my nutrition.
Regardless of how exhausting the tasks of caretaking can be at times, the outcomes are quite satisfying. I look at this experience as another part of my journey through life. I’m determined to grow from it and to make the last stage of my father’s journey one of peace and dignity.
Photo credits: Amada Senior Care, Golden Heart Senior Care, Southern Utah, Families for Life and US News & Health.
Donna began her journey in Human Services in 1983. During the next 35 years she held various positions and formally retired in 2018. She writes on an array of social issues. Donna’s relaxation time includes walking her Lab, Roxy, having fun with her six grandchildren, writing, spending time with friends, and applying self-care. Her current full-time position is care-taking her 90-year-old father.