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The Only Child Caregiver

Deb Hipp
By Deb HippNovember 8, 2018

Are you an only child caring for your aging parents or senior loved ones? Only child caregivers can easily neglect their own needs and become isolated or overwhelmed while caring for their parents with no one else to share the responsibility with.

Read our tips on how to balance caregiving with a life of your own and see which resources can help if you’re an only child caregiver.

An Only Child Caregiver

When Donna Lubrano’s mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 62, Donna knew that with no siblings, she’d eventually have to shoulder all the caregiving decisions for her mom alone. More than 20 years later, when her mother became bedridden, Donna realized the true weight of her responsibilities.

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For the next six years, Donna lived and worked in Boston while driving to her mother’s home in Rhode Island three days a week on her mom’s caregivers’ days off. Unlike families where siblings may work together to divvy up caregiving duties, Donna was the entire crew.

“I managed her care team, her finances, the house she lived in and her medical care, plus my own career and life for six years until she passed,” says Lubrano. “It was all on me.”

Lubrano cleaned the house and mowed the grass. She obtained a reverse mortgage on her mom’s house to pay for care and received a grant to remodel her mom’s bathroom for safety.

All the while, Lubrano felt intense pressure as the only child. “If anything happened to me, she would have no one to take care of her,” she says. “That’s pretty daunting.”

No One Else to Share the Responsibility

When two or more siblings share caregiving tasks, one person might be skilled at handling legal matters. Another can accompany Dad or Mom to doctor appointments. Yet another might clean the house, cook meals or keep up the yard. These tasks must be taken care of alone if you are an only child caregiver.

“Sometimes, siblings work well and can divide and conquer,” says Chandelle Martel, a certified Geriatric Care Manager and manager of the Geriatric Care Program at Bethesda Health Group in St. Louis, Missouri.

“The only child can’t divide and conquer with anyone else. All decisions are on you.”

Sometimes, Lubrano sought advice and support from friends. She even met with a therapist to share emotions ranging from resentment to sadness because she had to shoulder all decisions alone for her mother’s care.

“There was no way I was going to survive for six years without talking to someone about the toll it took on me,” says Lubrano. “Parkinson’s disease is ugly to watch, and I had the burden of watching her suffer as well — alone.”

Resources That Can Help an Only Child Caregiver

One of the greatest challenges that family caregivers face, whether they have siblings or not, is balancing a career with caregiving. Often, the adult child caregiver is in his or her 50s and at the peak of their career success.

When you’re the only child, quitting your job to become a full-time caregiver for your parent can seem like the only option. “Some adult caregivers step out of the workplace altogether and put their own aging needs and retirement at risk,” says Martel, who suggests utilizing workplace benefits in place to help employees in crisis situations before taking that leap.

For example, many jobs offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that pays for employees to visit a therapist or counselor. You can also hire a care manager who can help with decisions on in-home care, placement in a residential setting and other care-related matters.”

Other resources to lighten an only child caregiver’s load include:

  1. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA): The FMLA is a federal law that protects your job while you take leave to care for a family member. Many caregivers are eligible for this benefit.
  2. Respite care: Respite care allows you to take a few hours, a day, or even longer, away from caregiving. You can arrange for a family member, friend, in-home caregiver or volunteer to sit with your parent while you take a walk or visit a shop.
  3. Support network: Tap into your parent’s circle of friends for moral support or help with grocery shopping or other errands. Martel recommends also reaching out to your parent’s church or faith community and neighbors. Maybe someone can volunteer to mow the lawn. Others might be up for preparing a meal or two each week.
  4. Volunteer resources: Volunteer networks such as the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) offer senior companion programs and other volunteer services to assist family caregivers. Also, check with your state or county Council or Department on Aging for available programs.

Ways to Find Balance

After Lubrano’s mom passed away in 2008, she was glad she kept her job and home in Boston and hired 24-hour caregivers to assist. “I knew she was going to need an extraordinary amount of care,” says Lubrano. “I had to figure out a way to not be left with nothing while taking care of me and her at the same time.”

The sacrifices Lubrano made for her mom were worth it, even though she lost friends and opportunities along the way, she says. Sharing caregiving for a parent with your siblings also has challenges. However, making every decision as an only child comes with its own set of stressors.

“For quite a few years after that, I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the extreme stress of the responsibility of making sure she had the proper medical care, responsible caregivers, was financially solvent, happy and loved,” says Lubrano.

“I watch friends squabbling with siblings over who takes their loved one to the doctor. I watch them fight over money,” says Lubrano. “They have no clue what it’s like to know that you alone are responsible for the welfare of this human being.”

Are you an only child caregiver? What made your life easier when caring for a parent or senior loved one? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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