Faculty, staff face the challenge of caring for aging relatives

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As a child, Mary Schlitt’s parents were involved with every aspect of her life. They cooked her meals, drove her to various activities and appointments, and helped with her schoolwork.

Decades later, Schlitt, associate director of the LSA Barger Leadership Institute, finds herself performing the same tasks for them.

Along with her siblings, Schlitt has served as a caregiver for her aging parents, Jack and Mary Sergent, for the past three years. Her father died earlier this year, and she continues to support her mother, who lives in a rural community about an hour from Ann Arbor.

As her parents aged and lost the ability to care for themselves and perform everyday tasks, Schlitt said, the dynamics between the children and parents switched. While “parenting parents” can be frustrating, Schlitt said she tries to separate the work from the joy of spending time with them.

Photo of Mary Schlitt and her mother, Mary Sergent, sitting on a couch.
Mary Schlitt (left), associate director of the LSA Barger Leadership Institute, provides care for her mother, Mary Sergent. (Photo by Andrew Potter, Michigan Photography)

“The dance of caring for a parent and continuing to be their child is the most difficult part. You want them to be independent and make decisions, but sometimes they can’t accurately assess where they are at physically or mentally,” Schlitt said.

“Because they are your parents you want them to make their own decisions, but at some point, they can’t, and that is not always a clear line for you to step over and take control.”

As caregivers, Schlitt and her siblings coordinated scheduling and transporting their parents to medical, dental and social work appointments, securing resources such as Meals on Wheels and VA benefits, filing paperwork on their behalf, researching and arranging in-home care, working on a will and trust, and having difficult conversations about funeral arrangements and consolidating their estate.

Schlitt’s position is one shared by an estimated 10 million people in the United States who work as caregivers for aging relatives, according to U-M researchers.

The U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation released a report in November 2022 detailing the findings of a U-M National Poll on Healthy Aging, “Look for the Helpers: Providing Support to Older Adults.”

The poll sampled U.S. adults ages 50-80 about their experiences helping an adult 65 or older with health, personal and other types of care needs. More than half of the adults said they have served in this capacity as a caregiver within the past two years. 

Sixty-five percent of the respondents helping older adults reported struggling with at least one of the most pressing challenges caregivers face: emotional or physical fatigue, balancing work or other responsibilities, lack of time for self-care, and balancing times with family and friends.

Photo of Mary Schlitt and her mother, Mary Sergent, working together on a jigsaw puzzle.
Mary Schlitt and her mother, Mary Sergent, work together on a jigsaw puzzle. Schlitt said she tries to separate the challenges of being her mother’s caregiver from the joy she gets by spending time with her. (Photo by Andrew Potter, Michigan Photography)

As these challenges posed a progressively greater presence in her life, Schlitt realized talking through her struggles with others in the same situation could be cathartic and help her find further support.

She decided to start a support group on campus for faculty and staff who serve as caregivers for aging parents and relatives. One of the 28 LSA “affinity groups,” the Caring for Aging Parents group is “a place for shared experiences, laughter, tears and stress release.”

“I saw so many strong people around me quietly caring for their aging parents, but not really talking about it,” Schlitt said. “I don’t want anyone to feel alone in this journey. I feel that talking about something that is bothering me is good medicine, especially with people going through a shared experience, and I felt there were others at U-M who might feel the same way.”

Julie Nelson, an LSA pre-health academic adviser, joined the group in February. After moving back to Michigan during the pandemic to care for her aging parents, Nelson found herself continuing to grapple with the weight of her responsibilities to her family while also working a full-time job.

“It’s just a lot of little stresses that I realized I was carrying with me. I’m just a person, and so when I come to work, I’m of course focusing on work and doing my job, but at the same time a part of me is wondering: Is mom safe at home right now? Are they out driving around? Basically, are they OK?” Nelson said.

While discussing her struggles with colleagues, someone told her about the Caring for Aging Parents group, and she found it a perfect outlet to work through her struggles.

“It’s just a process that this group is allowing me to share with other staff. While as a family my brothers and I are supporting each other, it’s also really important, and a big relief, to find colleagues and others on campus to talk to who are going through the same thing,” Nelson said.

The affinity group meets monthly via Zoom where they share resources and life hacks to reduce stress. Schlitt said that working through struggles with others in the same position helps to validate their thoughts, actions and emotions.

“I feel lucky that I have a supportive team at work, husband, family and siblings who understand the stress and toll that caregiving takes on my physical and mental health. But even then, having the affinity group at work is a special kind of outlet and support. It allows us to be whole people on the job and recognize in others a shared duty beyond our work roles to provide care to our parents/elders,” Schlitt said.

Mary Schlitt (left) helps her mother, Mary Sergent, get in and out of her wheelchair. (Photo by Andrew Potter, Michigan Photography)

Sarah Patterson, a research investigator in the Survey Research Center at U-M’s Institute for Social Research, studies whether, and how, social norms and family composition influence caregiving behaviors and well-being for family members.

“We sort of expect people to provide for older family members,” Patterson said. “This is very ingrained in our society and social norms, but there’s less support for elder care because it’s not talked about as much as child care.”

Patterson frequently collaborates with the university’s Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging where she is a network affiliate with the Demography of Family Caregiving network.

While employers may have formal policies in place like paid elder care leave, Patterson said, conversations about the realities of caregiving are necessary to foster a supportive environment within a workspace.

“I do feel that elder care is more invisible in terms of people’s lives and the outcomes,” Patterson said. “Having the flexibility in the informal atmosphere in terms of your manager’s support, but also your co-workers’ support, is really critical as well.”

Along with their caretaking for aging relatives, many people also work to support young children. U-M researchers have analyzed ways the combined responsibilities and stresses impact this particular group of people.

Lianlian Lei, a senior research fellow of psychiatry in the Medical School, and Donovan Maust, associate professor of psychiatry in the Medical School, analyzed this group in their study published in the November 2022 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, “A national profile of sandwich generation caregivers providing care to both older adults and children.”

The study found that those in the so-called “sandwich generation” — people who served as caregivers for older relatives as well as children — were twice as likely to report financial difficulty and more likely to report substantial emotional difficulty than their peers who only act as a caregiver to a parent over 65.

The prevalence of adults struggling with this led University Human Resources to create a comprehensive collection of elder care resources available to faculty and staff.

Christine Snyder, director of child and family care for human resources, said employers may not be fully aware of the prevalence of employees struggling with caring for aging relatives.

“Generally speaking, individuals are more expectant of their employer to accommodate child care needs as opposed to elder care needs, and therefore may not be disclosing the need for elder care support. I think as a country, we haven’t yet fully embraced the employer opportunity to support employees with aging relatives,” Snyder said.

Available programs include the U-M Housing Bureau for Seniors, an organization to help people answer questions about housing and care options for themselves and aging friends, parents and other relatives.

The U-M Geriatrics Center Social Work and Community Programs consists of a team of geriatric social workers who provide a wide range of support and services to geriatric patients and their families.

One such service is the Turner Senior Wellness Program, a learning, health and wellness program dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for older adults and their families.

To assist faculty and staff with acquiring outside help, the university covers the fee for Care.com for all current faculty, staff and students.

Snyder said another popular resource for finding assistance is U-M’s Family Helpers Posting Board. The online search resource helps current faculty, staff or student families find support for elderly people living in the Ann Arbor area. Most of the helpers are full-time U-M students.

Snyder said University Human Resources will continue expanding their elder care programs and resources to ensure every struggling faculty and staff member can find support.

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