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Caring for my step dad


Question: My mother has been the primary care giver for my stepfather for more than 20 years. He has chronic heart failure, a clotting disorder, morbid obesity, and hidradenitis. Two weeks ago, my mother had a stroke and lost the use of her right arm. She has difficulty swallowing, is unable to stand on her own, and has some personality changes.

My stepfather is unable to cook, clean, do laundry, wash himself etc. He also has wounds in his groin related to his hidradenitis. For the first few days I was able to help him every day with breakfast, dinner and wound care because I had time off from work. I am now back to work (12 hour shifts 7pm - 7am, sometimes 3 to 5 days in a row). I can only make it to see him once every 2 to 3 days. He calls me many times a day and gets upset that I am not able to help him several times a day.

He continues to call my mother and tell her he needs her to come home and take care of him. I have tried to explain to him that when she comes home, she will need someone to care for her, but he doesn’t seem to believe that. I have even called the local VA hospital and left several messages with the social worker to try and get help for him, but have not received a response.

I sometimes feel guilty that I can’t get there more often. I have been alternating days between helping him and visiting my mother. When I do go to help him, it involves about two hours. I do laundry, fix him a meal, clean up, give him a ‘bed bath’, and change his dressing. I am very uncomfortable and this is bringing up some childhood issues that I would rather leave in the past. I am averaging three to four hours of sleep. Last night, he actually called my mother and said “Your daughter (meaning me) needs to come here and change my bandages. I am a bloody mess and she won’t come. I haven’t eaten all day.” He is only concerned about himself. I am so angry I don’t want to help him at all anymore. What should I do?

Dr. Amy: You definitely need help—and right away. You’ve got a lot on your plate, and when we're sleep deprived and stressed out, everything feels even more difficult. I encourage you to:

  • look at your mother and step father’s insurance policy to see what it covers
  • call Adult Services to see if your parents are eligible for In-home Aide Services
  • make a list of friends and family who can help you, in the short term. Think about your own friends as well as your mom and step father’s friends and neighbours. Many hands make for light work applies here. If you can put together a team of 5-10 people and each person is willing to stop by for an hour once a week, you won’t have to carry the load all by yourself.
  • call community service organizations, like Meals on Wheels to find out what services they can provide
  • keep calling Veterans Affairs, if your step father is eligible for assistance

If you can afford it, a geriatric care manager will save you a lot of time by doing a professional assessment of your situation and helping you make a plan. Geriatric care managers are familiar with resources and services your mom and step father may be eligible for, which is a great help. They can also point you to resources in the community where you can get help for yourself.

You are embarking on a new journey with your family, and there may be other challenges that crop up as the situation unfolds. You need emotional support and the sooner you set up a support network the better you will feel. A caregiver support group is an excellent start. Talking to people who are walking the same path will give you strength.  You may also wish to seek counselling to explore and resolve the issues from your childhood. Many people find that unresolved childhood issues resurface during caregiving.

I understand your frustration with your stepfather. My guess is he is experiencing his own frustrations dealing with a lot of chronic issues without your mom. A geriatric care manager could help him understand the new situation and put him in touch group for himself.

I send you strength.

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