Who makes up a care couple?

When an elderly parent falls ill, falls down or is diagnosed with dementia, the adult child is all too often thrown into crisis mode to figure out who to call, what to do and where to turn. It does not have to happen this way. And you don’t have to do it alone.

If we take the time to pay attention and put a plan in place, we are able to reduce the stress and mitigate the mess. How do we do that? Let’s begin with a basic triangle. A triangle has three sides and three vertices, or points. Imagine a triangle with a solid bottom base between two vertices. Place your parent at the top vertex, pointing skyward, the focal point. You and one other person will make up the base of the triangle in support of your parent or loved one. You and the third person become the baseline “care couple.”

The third person can be a family member, trusted friend or paid professional. This baseline is critical for making care decisions when we need to have a second set of eyes, ears and hands helping us offer the best care for our parent and for each other. Identify a care couple to provide a solid foundation of support.

My Aunt Nancy and I became the default care couple for my mom when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mom believed only what she chose to believe. Mom had been a savvy, successful business owner who always paid her bills on time, invested wisely and carefully monitored her finances. In her mind, she was independently wealthy with the freedom and ability to do as she pleased, and she was not leaving her house. She lived alone and refused in home-care. We could not continue to field her suicide threats, panic attack calls and paranoia from the opposite coast.

Mom wanted to maintain control over the situation, but became immediately overwhelmed when it came time to act. She had several authoritative “mom mantras” that she repeated constantly on a loop as she assured us that she was working toward a decision, but intentionally without end. The inevitable outcome was unacceptable for her.

A text from my mom: “Hi! I just texted Nancy and Kate…now you…that I finally understand that I am dealing w dementia or something similar, possibly exaggerated by the pandemic and loneliness. I am so independent and so wanting to stay in my home and neighborhood that I cannot face the thought of leaving … I have some tough decisions to make.”

It is very difficult to manage the personal and emotional side of caregiving, as well as grasping the legal, financial and medical knowledge required. Being remote adds an extra layer of difficulty and stress. The priority should be to designate a financial Power of Attorney and a healthcare Power of Attorney. Without them, help is hard to enforce.

My Aunt Nancy spent over fifty years as a nurse in clinical care, critical care and hospital administration, making her fluent in medical terminology. As mom’s healthcare Power of Attorney, she was able to access the health portal to review mom’s medical records as a peer with the physicians to help us take the necessary steps to move mom to a safe environment. Even with Nancy’s extensive medical knowledge, it was a lengthy process.

Establishing a core care couple enables you to build out your circle of care. Understanding and managing the terms and intricacies of financial, legal and medical matters is similar to learning three foreign languages simultaneously while under duress. The stakes are much higher than being routed to the barber instead of the bathroom when things are lost in translation!

I took on the task of making arrangements for emptying the house. We weren’t completely sure we would be able to convince mom to leave the house at all, but we proceeded with a plan and hoped the right things would fall into place. Hiring an elder care attorney helped.

This is where paid professionals can come in handy. You may also know friends, neighbors or people from your parish who specialize in certain areas and may be able to offer some initial advice. Estate Law is unique to each state, so it is important to hire someone with the proper expertise. One resource I have found to be most helpful in New Jersey is the New Jersey Elder Law Center: www.njelc.com They are licensed, responsive and well versed in Elder Law and Estate Planning. They offer frequent informative webinars on relevant topics and facilitate several caregiver support groups.

Some statistics show that caregivers die before those they are caring for because they neglect their own needs. Choosing a partner to create a care couple allows you to share the burden of overwhelming decisions and day-to-day details, and take turns to incorporate self-care. You cannot do it alone.

After the care couple is firmly in place, the goal is to curate a broader circle of care and communication to cover all aspects and lighten the load for everyone. Stay tuned.

Nicole Smith is a communitarian, podcaster and author. Nicole is working on a forthcoming prescriptive book on how to build a comprehensive elder care team and plan for a parent or parents. Nicole is the host of the weekly radio show Happy to Help on Facebook Live: Happy Hunterdon