Elder Care & Homeschooling
By Vicki Bentley
An increasing number of homeschoolers are considering the question of whether to provide in-home care for aging parents or grandparents. Many of you face—or may someday face—the challenge of helping to manage a parent’s daily life of nurses and therapists, chemotherapy and blood transfusions, oxygen providers and medical equipment, prescriptions and insurance, house modifications, personal care, and companionship. Or you have already taken it on—and are wondering how to make it work while also managing your own household and homeschooling full-time. You may be asking:
>> How do I prepare for this?
>> How can I possibly homeschool while caregiving?
>> How will caregiving impact my family?
HOW DO I PREPARE?
Sometimes life comes at you so quickly that there is no preparation phase. Circumstances simply send you into autopilot mode and you instinctively, protectively bring your parents home. However, if you do have advance notice—or if you are planning ahead for that season of life—asking the right questions can help you evaluate your options.
Check out our list of online resources for homeschooling parents who are caregiving. Find tips, encouragement, and advice from people who have been there.
HOW TO HELP A CAREGIVING FAMILY
There are a number of meaningful ways you can reach out to a family that is juggling homeschooling and caregiving:
• Pray for them.
• Volunteer to sit with the care recipient so the caregiver can have some time off.
• Take their children to events, such as support group activities or field trips.
• Include their children in your family events.
• Invite them to events. Even if they can't come, it is nice to know they are wanted.
• Understand that they have limited social time, even on the phone. If you call, they may need to keep it brief.
• Take them freezer meals.
• Help them catch up on laundry, vacuum their house, or clean their windows.
• Offer to pick up a few groceries when you make your shopping trip.
• Treat the care recipient with dignity and honor.
• Set up a community help network, such as at www.lotsahelpinghands.com.
For more suggestions, see Janice Campbell’s article, “Advice for Friends of Caregivers”.
Janice Campbell of Virginia shares some questions that were helpful to her family as they made the decision to provide full-time care for her grandparents, who raised her:
First, you must consider yourself, your family, and the elderly parent. Do you have a good relationship with the person you would be caring for? Love can help you survive difficult times and situations. Second, does the person want in-home care, or would he rather go to assisted living? Do you and he have a sense of humor? Diapers, dentures, and dementia do create very difficult situations. You must be able to laugh in order to survive. Do you have a good relationship with your spouse, and does your spouse support the idea of caregiving? Caregiving challenges even a solid relationship. Finally, what kind of an influence will the care recipient be on your family? Attitudes are contagious, so consider in advance how to address difficult issues.
Here are some additional tips from other experienced caregivers:
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS OF YOUR FAMILY.
Julie Caprera of Massachusetts, whose family has been caring for her mother-in-law for almost nine years, stresses that this should be a mutual decision; if one spouse is not supportive, or if the care recipient is adamantly opposed, the arrangement can result in anger or conflict. If this disagreement cannot be resolved, you may want to investigate other care options. If there are other extended family members, a family meeting is recommended.
Questions to consider and discuss during the meeting include the following: Is everyone supportive of the decision? What roles will all the siblings play? Are others close enough geographically to take turns providing care or respite care? Who will handle finances? How will legal matters be handled? Will others pitch in with labor or finances for household help?
While this will be an opportunity for your children to serve and honor their elders and to pitch in as a family, they should not be expected to shoulder the burden of eldercare. Generally, the parent who stays home during the day should be prepared to carry most of the day-to-day caregiving responsibility.
This means that for many homeschooling families, it will be the mom who cares for the parent in addition to running the home, caring for the children, and homeschooling. It’s very important that husbands recognize this heavy task load, helping out whenever possible and providing physical, emotional, and spiritual protection.
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS OF THE CARE RECIPIENT.
Janice cautions, “If there are longstanding relationship issues or personality conflicts, and especially if the parent in question is bullying, abusive, or otherwise dangerous, it may be best to consider options other than in-home care. The priority in your home must be caring for your husband, your children—and even yourself—and that requires focus and emotional energy. If you have no other option than to take a person who is toxic, the Lord will be there for you, but I don’t recommend it if you don’t have to do it.”
If you are considering caring for someone who has significantly different values than you do, be mindful of the ages of your children and the potential influence on them. Consider in advance how to deal with inappropriate comments, belligerence, impatience, manipulation, or other unpleasant behaviors that could arise from either personality conflicts or mental confusion.
Recognize that since most Alzheimer’s/dementia patients are in relatively good health, they can still move quickly, making it difficult to keep track of their whereabouts. As they lose their memory, they may also lose their sense of modesty, so be prepared for some surprises.
Don’t expect care recipients to always be cheerful or even personable. This is likely a difficult season for them, and they may feel ambivalent about the situation, discouraged about their failing health, or guilt-ridden about the impact their care is having on their families.
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS OF YOUR FRIENDS & COMMUNITY.
According to Mary Sayre of Pennsylvania and Flo Feldman of North Carolina, you should communicate your needs, but be aware that caregiving tends to isolate families.
“During the nearly two decades that we had my grandmother, people slowly stopped asking us out or including us in activities, as we either had to bring her or couldn’t leave her,” says Janice.
“We were too overwhelmed and stressed to have company or even much energy for social life, so we didn’t initiate things either. It does get lonely. If you can find a local support group, that’s probably a good source for companions for this journey.” (See sidebar for suggested resources.)
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS OF YOURSELF.
Nobody expects you to be a superhero. Know your areas of strength and need; don’t think you have to do everything yourself. Julie found it helpful to hire outside help for her mother-in-law’s finances as well as occasional housework, while Flo had a health care aide come regularly to give her time to work and take care of personal errands. Expect to be frustrated or overwhelmed sometimes; cry out to God (and sometimes just cry), then leave it at His feet.
BE PREPARED TO ALTER YOUR HOUSE.
If your home isn’t handicapped accessible, plan to modify the house to make life simpler and safer, such as adding bath rails, a bath bench, a handheld showerhead, sidewalk or stairway rails, a stairway lift, and wheelchair/walker access to everyday living areas, including hallways and doors.
Older people tire easily, and the normal noise and rhythm of family life can overwhelm them. A room—or suite of rooms—for your loved ones, away from the hub of activity, gives them a place to be quiet and enjoy their own pursuits or entertain visitors, and it allows your family a measure of privacy. Mary found that moving her father-in-law’s “room” to the former dining area was actually more convenient, so they could monitor his needs. Flo’s mother had her own suite until her physical limitations dictated a move closer to the main living area.
BE PREPARED TO ADVOCATE FOR YOUR LOVED ONE.
Keep a care notebook in which you can log all doctor appointments, treatments, therapies, lab tests, and diagnoses. Take notes at meetings; unrecorded dates and details will quickly blur. Spare copies of medicine lists (with prescription information and dosage) and brief medical summaries are helpful to have on hand for medical staff. Write out procedures or routines for any substitute caregivers.
Contact a lawyer, preferably an eldercare attorney, to get things in order before the care recipient can no longer manage his affairs. Important legal documents to consider are: general power of attorney, health care power of attorney, will, living trust, deed of gift, and advance medical directive. You should also seriously consider adding the caregiver’s name to the checking account. Keep detailed financial records for accountability.
“Do everything you can to have a loving and open relationship with your parents, even before this season of life,” encourages Flo. “As they age, wherever possible, be an active part of your parents’ lives. At the very least, get to know your parents as people. Get to know what they want as they get older and what they would like if and when they cannot totally care for themselves. Be gentle when you discuss these things!”
MAINTAIN A SENSE OF HUMOR.
When a tense situation arises, gentle laughter can be a lifesaver. Janice says, “One thing that can save your sanity is a sense of humor, and it helps if you both have one! There’s plenty that happens that’s tragic, but there’s comedy along the way, too.”
WHERE DOES HOMESCHOOLING FIT INTO CAREGIVING?
While it is certainly a challenge to homeschool and caregive, there are many benefits. You will find that you are teaching not only academics, but also life skills, compassion, cooperation, and honor. As you, your children, and your older family member spend time together, you are building relationships, discipling your children, and nurturing a learning lifestyle.
It is not uncommon for a child who has done very little else during the year than simply cuddle with Mom or Grandma, help out around the house, and read a lot (or be read to) to still advance a year in language arts and mathematics on a standardized test. While you would not pursue that as a long-term homeschooling lifestyle, be reassured that children still learn when given a firm foundation and the right tools. And in addition to their cognitive gains, they have learned valuable lessons on how to live through crisis, serve one another under stress, and trust in God for each moment.
Combining homeschooling and caregiving may involve redefining normal for your family during this season. So, how do you do that?
START WITH A ROUTINE.
When you feel overwhelmed, start by identifying the basics of normal. What is getting dropped that is truly essential? Meals? Bedtimes? Basic housekeeping? Read-aloud time? Revisit and rework your routine—not the sort of schedule that has you checking the to-do list every eight minutes, or dinging a bell to move from lunch to naptime, but instead covering the basics and ensuring some regularity from day to day.
Knowing what comes next, without having to make one more decision, can be a relief. Children—and most care recipients—find security in routine, and parents can find emotional freedom in having a basic structure for the day or week. For example: “I'll make a great effort to have breakfast by 7:30, after morning medications, and then lunch ready at 1:00 and supper at 6:30.”
FOCUS ON HOME.
Caregiving is physically and emotionally draining. Janice advises, “If you’re a wife and mother, the most important thing you must do is love your husband and children (Titus 2:4), and keep them at the top of your priority list.”
Mary explains that caregiving forced her family to find educational and social opportunities closer to home. While the Sayre children continued to participate in outside activities such as debate, Mary and her husband Rodger gave up their parental involvement in leadership roles such as coaching the team. The Campbells and Sayres found that eliminating the extra running around had many benefits, including better family relationships, improved health, better-quality learning, and more relaxed and pleasant days.
MAKE TIME FOR YOUR FAMILY.
Your extended family may not understand the demands that caregiving, in addition to homeschooling, puts on your time. You or your spouse may need to communicate your needs and limitations to other family members. Mary arranges for one full day of respite care each week to focus on her children. Janice’s husband took over care of Grandma and the boys one evening a week so Janice could recharge her batteries and do her planning at a local coffee shop.
FOCUS ON THE BASICS.
In the last year of Janice’s grandfather’s life, the Campbells were faced with his Alzheimer’s disease and her grandmother’s difficult adjustment to living in Virginia, plus the task of parenting four boys, ages 1–8. Between packing the boys into the car to go hunt up “Gampy” when he wandered off (sometimes more than once a day), selling their house, building a new home for this extended family, and coping with meals, laundry, and all the varying physical and emotional needs, Janice found it a challenge to get through even a very basic math lesson and a little writing.
She realized that most of what she had learned as a child had been through independent reading, so during that crisis year, she made sure that her boys had lots of good reading material, audio books and music, and an occasional video documentary. Even though the physical needs of the moment sometimes made it impossible to follow her previous lesson plans, Janice and her husband decided it was more important to preserve and build family relationships than to have a perfect homeschool. Janice’s priority was creating a learning lifestyle in which learning could happen, with or without structure.
No instructor can teach a child everything there is to learn; a good instructor teaches a student how to learn and gives him the tools to learn. Homeschooling parents who are also caregiving can begin to equip their children to learn by focusing on the foundational skills of math and language, adding read-alouds in other subject areas for content and vocabulary.
For example, Julie finds that letting her son read to his grandmother, or his grandmother to him, frees up some of her own time and builds the bond between grandson and grandmother, while demonstrating to Julie’s mother-in-law that they value her as part of the family.
If you have several children, educational games (see “Homeschool Fun and Games”) and multilevel activities allow you to get maximum results with minimal effort. In most cases, you can alternate subjects; rather than trying to cover six subjects in a day, cover two or three subjects in longer sessions.
Many caregivers admit that much of their discouragement stems from the concern that they just aren’t doing enough, or that their children will end up with big learning gaps. If you are aware of the typical academic milestones, you can make a conscious decision to focus on certain concepts now or concentrate on them later. “What Should I Be Teaching?” can help you identify which basics you want to cover when. For members who need a little help adapting their curriculum to fit this changing lifestyle, HSLDA’s education consultants are just a phone call or email away.
HOW WILL CAREGIVING AFFECT MY FAMILY?
While it is important that you not allow a care recipient’s illness, disability, or confusion to maintain center stage in your life, you should recognize that caregiving has a profound effect on your family.
Caregiving caused Flo to redefine what being a good daughter or mom is. She recognized that although her mother had cognitive impairment, she could reach her through games, songs, dance, and movement, so it allowed Flo to give herself permission to be creative. She had to constantly be on guard against self-pity, and was often reminded to turn to the Lord. If she had to do it over, she would move closer to extended family for support. Yet she would not hesitate to make the same caregiving decision again.
“Caregiving reveals your character flaws,” laughs Julie. “God is sovereign; this is an opportunity for grace.”
She has plenty of opportunity to grow in grace, as she purposes to take her mother-in-law with her practically everywhere they go.
“You aren’t just a mom and a daughter-in-law, but you are a wife—first,” Julie adds. “Just because your husband can fend for himself doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss his bride.”
She and Rob deliberately schedule date time as well as family time. And they look for the joy and laughter in the midst of the challenges, because “a merry heart does good, like medicine” (Proverbs 17:22a).
“IT WAS A TIME
OF GREAT DIFFICULTY
AND ALSO A TIME
OF GREAT LAUGHTER,
TEARS, AND SO MANY
BLESSINGS WE COULD
HARDLY COUNT THEM.”
Mary is grateful that her children are so sweet-spirited and are learning so much through this experience. They are observing and modeling unconditional love and personal ministry as they willingly and cheerfully serve their grandfather, who—in his dining room "bed-room"—is in the center of their home and the center of their lives.
The emotional and spiritual drain on Mary reminds her to immerse herself and her family in God’s word, and to encourage shut-ins: Surround them with Scripture; play worshipful music. If your parents are believers, it is easier to walk through this season with them and to make the hard decisions. According to Mary, “Don’t underestimate the impact on your family. It won’t take away from your life, but will enrich and bless you.”
Beth is challenged by having to be “Mom” to her mom, as well as by finding time to herself. Getting the kids to pitch in takes a concerted effort, and she is working on implementing a home management training system.
Having already provided care to one parent, who passed away, Beth finds that each member of her family handles things differently: “Closing off discussion, being angry, sorrowing, recounting good memories and blessings, or crying out of the blue. Grief creeps up and shows itself at the oddest times, over the small things.”
Janice says, “Our four boys grew up knowing their grandmother in a way that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible. My husband and I learned to work together through some very difficult situations. We found that caregiving for older relatives involves many hard choices. It changed our lives in ways we couldn’t foresee. It was a time of great difficulty and also a time of laughter, tears, and so many blessings we could hardly count them.”
She continues, “There are so many things you can gain from caregiving. You learn that people are more important than perfect schedules. You’ll learn to be flexible and patient. Your children will become better acquainted with the person you’re caring for and learn to bless them by helping out in so many ways.
“You’ll gain new friends who understand what you’re going through. You’ll learn that a sense of humor can make diapers, dentures, and dementia bearable, and you learn not to rely on yourself but on the Lord … you’ll be thankful you did it.”
Beth (NC), wife and homeschooling mom of four, took care of her father in the hospital and at her home while he was in hospice care with lung cancer. Beth and her family now care full-time in their home for her mother, who was recently diagnosed with moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
Janice Campbell (VA), along with her husband and four homeschooled sons, was the primary caregiver for her grandfather from 1989 to 1993, and for her grandmother from 1992 to 2010. She continues to enjoy frequent visits with her 99-year-old grandmother in a nearby nursing home, and is thankful for the Lord’s faithfulness, love, and mercy throughout each day.
Julie Caprera (MA) is a critical care nurse and homeschooling mom who began caring eight years ago for her mother-in-law, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Florence (“Flo”) Feldman (NC) served as the Home Educators Association of Virginia’s convention director for 15 years. During that time, she was the primary caregiver for her mother for nearly six years in her home and gradually took over the tasks her mother could not perform for four years prior to that. Flo is working on a documentary of the last three years of her mother’s life, hoping to help and inspire others who are caring for someone with dementia.
Mary Sayre (PA) and her husband, HSLDA board member Dr. Rodger Sayre, have been caring for elderly relatives over the past 10 years, while raising 11 children. After multiple strokes, seizures, and an amputation, the final 18 months of Rodger’s father’s care was provided in their home. They continue to assist Rodger’s 91-year-“young” mother with banking, bills, and business decisions. Mary is also overseeing the care of her parents, as her mother suffers from chronic Lyme disease, and her father recently underwent “routine” heart valve replacement surgery that resulted in over eight weeks of hospitalization.