My mother-in-law is a matriarch who has spent her entire life caring for family members- her parents, her siblings, her children, nieces and nephews and even friends. She has a heart of gold and is willing to provide for those she holds closest to her heart. A decade ago she moved in with us to help when I was pregnant with my second child. Her help with our young kids and cooking meals was the reason our family stayed afloat and I could go to grad school. Over time, I thought about how I could ever pay her back. She has since moved out on her own, but I try to make certain I extend myself when she is in need. For a woman in her seventies, she’s extremely independent and self sufficient, so it’s hard to label myself a traditional caregiver. But when it comes down to it, I think she and my family see me in that role.
There are many types of caregiving. Many of us think of caregiving as literally taking care of a person who can no longer take care of themselves. As an adult watching my parents care for their respective parents, I’ve learned that there is a continuum of caregiving. My mother cared for my grandmother up through her death. It required that my mother work with the hospice center; collaborate with her brothers on keeping to my grandmother’s diet and monitoring her medications; and move forward on important health decisions about my grandmother when she no longer could do it herself. On the other hand, my father and his brothers regularly check in on my grandparents, who as independent as they are in their eighties, have begun to require more assistance and more frequent check-ins.
Caregiving for a relatively independent person looks a lot different than in-home or hospice caregiving. For me, much of my caregiving is focused on ensuring that my mother-in-law maintains the level of independence and comfort she requires, while helping her when absolutely necessary or when she asks. Here are a few very important roles I take in her life:
I’m her Director of Social Outreach: In this role I make sure that she is cultivating and maintaining relationships with family members and neighbors. This means checking in with my husband and other close family members to make sure they’ve called her lately or stopped by. I make sure that my kids call or FaceTime her regularly and I make sure my children are engaging her in conversations rather than just telling her stuff about them. I remind them that when they go visit or sleep over, they are there to help by offering to clean and helping in the kitchen when asked. Most importantly, I respect the relationship my kids have with their grandmother and encourage them to spend as much time learning from her.
I’m her “IT Guy”: In this role, I’ve worked to make sure that my mother-in-law is comfortable with technology. My children and I have taught her how to switch between network TV and streaming services, how to use Facebook (safely), how to check email, how to use emojis and fun social apps, and how to check, send, and clear text messages. Because she does not live in our home, it’s really important that she has several methods of communicating with us.
I’m her Health and Human Services Aid: I work with her to make sure that her health insurance, housing, employment, voter registration, and banking are in order. This requires me to fill out forms with her and check that her personal information is up-to-date and correct. I spend time researching health programs she is eligible for and search for information to questions she has about her care. I ask her about her meals and if she exercises regularly. And I always make sure that she checks in with me after a doctor or dental appointment so that I have a summary of care and can ask more questions if need be. Because she rides the bus a lot, I worked with her to make sure that her metro card is registered.
I’m her Chauffeur: I make sure that I’m available to take her anywhere she needs to go. If it’s too cold or too far to take the bus, we coordinate a time for me to be her “Uber” driver.
As family members age, there is a lot to consider. My mother-in-law has a saying she uses regularly, “Once a man twice a child”. When I hear her say this, I try to make sure to respect the fact that although she may need more help, she is not a child. She is a strong willed and loving older woman that just needs a little assistance now-and-then. She knows that for me, our relationship is built on mutual respect. There are times when I get frustrated, but I want my daughters to see me model a loving style of caregiving built upon a relationship. It’s not just me providing care or her watching the kids when I need a break. Intergenerational relationships are an important part to keeping us grounded in life. We take time to talk, give each other advice, and go on adventures- even if it’s just to the grocery store. This is what makes caregiving more like giving care.
At the heart of each stage of caregiving is compassion- no matter how challenging- and love - no matter how heartbreaking. For independent seniors, you don’t have to hover but you can’t leave them alone and expect them to flourish. Ask yourself, “Who are their friends and neighbors that can call you if something happens?”, “Is their living and working environment safe?”, “What other needs can you meet that won’t undermine their independence?”. My mother-in-law knows that if anything should happen, I have a key and am less than a half-hour away. She also knows that I respect her space and her ability to make choices and I’m here to help if ever the moment arises that she needs more assistance.
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*This post was part of a paid sponsorship with AARP. Although this is a compensated opportunity, all views expressed in this blog are real and highlight my personal experience as a millennial caregiver.
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working to make life more equitable for all people. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.