Elder Journal: The Post-Retirement Caregiver: Unexpected Outcomes

The Post-Retirement Caregiver:  Unexpected Outcomes
By Paul Takayanagi
August 2003

Retirement, once a time of life attainable only by the wealthy, has become an expected goal for hundreds of millions of working Americans.  Most people expect to retire from the work they are doing currently at some point in the future.  Many see retirement as a leisure-filled time of life that will enable them to do all of the things that they have put off doing in their working years.   But this is not always possible.  Sometimes health problems develop soon after retirement that changes the expectations for the person.  The retirement expectations can be especially foiled when a person finds her or himself as the primary caregiver to an elderly loved one.  The long term outcome of being a caregiver is that it can be a 24 hours/7 days a week responsibility.  I know caregivers who long for a “regular eight hour day” and would be hugely relieved if that were possible.  Many of these caregivers are living out their retirement years in unexpected ways.

Joe, Elise and Edna

Joe is a retired engineer from a major corporate organization.  He received a “golden handshake” three years ago and was able to retire at the relatively young age of sixty years.  His wife, Elise, is eight years younger and does not expect to be able to retire from her job as a school teacher until she is sixty-five years old in ten years.  Joe’s mother, Edna, lives nearby and is 83 years old.  She was diagnosed with dementia five years ago.  For three years, she lived totally independently with some assistance from her son and daughter-in-law.  But for the past two years, she has become increasingly frail and more dependent on her relatives for her daily care.  She still lives independently in a retirement community about a twenty minute drive from where Joe and Elise reside.  Every day, Joe goes to his mother’s apartment to help her get up, dress, eat breakfast and go to any doctor’s or other appointments.  He does her grocery shopping and many odd jobs around her apartment.  At night, he brings her over to his and Elise’s house to eat dinner.  And then he drives her back to her apartment for the night.  He knows that the time may come soon when she will have to make a transition to living with him and Elise in their home.

Joe’s life is almost completely determined by caring for his mother.  He does get to the golf course once in a great while and he has some civic activities that he participates in when he is able to find the time.  But, day in and day out, including the weekends, caring for his mother takes up most of every day.  “I thought working in my career was hectic but it’s nothing compared to caring for my mother daily,” he shares.  “At work, I was “the boss.” I had a secretary, assistants and a whole staff of people to do the work.  Here at home, it’s just me, Elise when she can find the time from her job, some wonderful neighbors and an occasional professional worker, like the time my mother fell and broke her hip and had to have some one come in each day to assist her.  That lasted six months but she is back to being somewhat independent again.   That’s of course, what we want for her, but it’s getting harder and harder.”

Joe feels that being the primary caregiver for his mother is “the thing to do” especially since Elise is still working and won’t retire from her job for quite some time.  He wishes that he could go on more fishing trips with his buddies from work who have also retired and had more time “to do whatever” instead of having the stress of caregiving.  But he also feels that this is an important time for him and his mother to share some meaningful time together.  “She cared for me for much of my life in one way or another,” he says, “so it seems only right that I care for her now that she is elderly and has dementia.”  Retirement hasn’t exactly turned out in the way Joe had anticipated but he feels that his life is meaningful.  Perhaps too meaningful!

Becky and Thomas

The altruistic feelings that Joe has for caring for his mother are not what Becky, a 62 year old retired Administrative Director of a museum, feels for caring for her father, Thomas.  He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years ago and has increasingly become a challenge to care for on a daily basis.  Becky felt forced to retire early from her job so that she could provide care for him.  She moved in with him to provide care but feels very stressful and resentful of being the primary caregiver.  “My father and I have never seen eye-to-eye about anything,” she laments, “he is belligerent and difficult to care for.”  Becky’s mother died when she was quite young and Thomas never remarried.  “He has been alone for a long time,” Becky shares, “and he has his way of doing things and that’s that.”  Becky tried to bring in home care workers to be with Thomas while she was working but he never allowed them to be in the house for more than ten minutes.  After an unsuccessful experience in a nursing home, Becky retired from her job and moved in with her father.

Becky’s health has recently become compromised and she had to have an operation for a back injury.  She feels that her health and overall quality of life has been reduced by being the primary caregiver of her father.  She resents having to care for someone whom she never felt that close to but also feels that there are few options available to her.  A professional geriatric care manager has been working with her and Thomas to find some solutions but they have been very few and far between.  “I always felt that my retirement would be a fun time where I could travel, learn some new hobbies and feel relaxed.  Instead, I’m stressed out on a daily basis, much more than when I was working at my job!”  Recently, Becky enrolled in a stress reduction class at a local hospital and found it immensely helpful.   She is hoping that they will offer a similar class specifically for elders so that she can enroll her father.

The differences in the “post retirement” caregiving experiences of Joe and Becky are partly determined by the quality of the relationship each has with their elder parent and the prevalence or lack thereof of support systems around them.  Becky feels virtually alone caring for her father who will not allow any stranger in the home to help them.  Joe, while feeling some stress, has a loving and supportive partner to at least help him to provide care for his mother and to share responsibilities of their own home.  Both Joe and Becky, however, are experiencing a different retired life than they had expected.  Retirement is not always a “relaxing, leisure filled” experience for the post-retired caregiver of an elder loved one!

For more information on retirement and caring for an elder loved one, visit the web site of the American Association of Retired Persons at www.aarp.org.  For stress reduction classes contact your local health care provider.  You can find out about the services available to you as a caregiver and for your elder loved ones through the Area Agencies on Aging (AAA).  For the AAA near you, you can go online to Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov or call the toll-free Eldercare Locator service that operates Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern time, and can be reached at 1-800-677-1116.

About the Columnist:  Paul Takayanagi is a holistic gerontologist with a Masters’ degree in Gerontology from San Francisco State University.  He has taught at San Francisco State University and at the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; Chabot Community College; and the Graduate Theological Union.  He was also the Education Director of Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay in Berkeley, California.  He is a member of the American Society on Aging and currently was a Chairperson for their Summer Series on Aging held in San Francisco in June 2003.   You can visit Paul’s web site at www.livingoveraging.com.

Available from ElderCare Online™             www.ec-online.net             2003 Prism Innovations, Inc.