Laura Northern’s 88-year-old mother Ruth has a baby doll she regularly talks to. Ruth won’t eat her pudding if there’s medication stuck inside of it. And sometimes she gets up in the middle of the night asking to go home.
This reversion to a state of toddlerdom is normal for people with advanced Alzheimer’s disease — like Ruth. Most days she doesn’t recognize Laura, her youngest child of five and now also her primary caregiver.
It’s also normal that Laura, who has a full-time job at NASA, is her primary caregiver.
According to recent research by Home Instead Senior Care, a nationwide elderly care services company headquartered out of Omaha, there are an estimated 13 million working daughters in the U.S., and women are twice as likely to spend more than 30 hours a week caregiving compared to men.
Women are also reportedly more stressed out about caregiving than men are. A 2017 study of 9,000 employees showed that 78 percent of women are stressed out by caregiving responsibilities, compared to 66 percent of men.
In light of this situation, the Home Instead Senior Care Network launched a campaign called “Daughters in the Workplace” to advocate for working women who are caring for aging parents.
On its website, there are free tools, resources and a starter quiz for caregivers.
An unfair choice: career or caretaking
According to Hollie Bradley, the franchise owner of the Newport News branch of Home Instead, “Women feel they have to make a choice between ‘Caring for my parents and my job.’”
“They tend to leave the job, or pass up promotions,” she added.
They will also typically try to hide the situation from their employer, even though she recommends that people struggling with caring for an aging parent speak up about their situation.
“Honesty is always the best policy,” Bradley said. “That also gives the employer the chance to be sympathetic to their employees.”
Northern was open about her situation at work.
“My director went through this with his mother, but his wife did most of the caretaking,” she said. “He understands my situation and what I’m going through.”
As a senior office administrator for the Office of Safety and Missions Assurance at NASA, and a supervisor for other administrative staff and support, Northern has busy days.
She also sells real estate part-time. She’s gone from her house between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., when a caregiver from Home Instead watches her mother.
Once Northern gets home, her mother is another full-time job.
“You have to give up your social life, and even just being able to go to the store,” she said.
Northern, who is 49-years-old, has five grown children of her own, who sometimes help out with their grandmother. She also arranges for a caretaker to go running and walking, to prepare for the half-marathon she’s signed up to run in the fall.
“Running helps relieve the stress,” she said.
Dealing with the decline of an aging parent
For Northern, one of the biggest adjustments in caring for her mother has been coping with her declining condition.
“I’ll come in and say, ‘Hi,’ and then come back, and she’ll be like, ‘Good morning,’” Northern said. “A lot of the conversation doesn’t make sense at all, so you just agree. You keep it moving.”
Even though some people will try to correct or argue with a person with Alzheimer’s disease, Northern takes a gentle approach with her mother, using agreement, patience and humor — for her own sake.
She even started a Facebook page to share both the frustrating and funny moments involved with caring for her mother.
“You have to be patient,” she said. “Even sometimes my mother gets angry with me. She doesn’t want to take her medications. The other day she said she was going to call the police. You have to find the humor and not take things personally. And don’t get frustrated when things don’t work out.”
Although Northern is now the primary caregiver for her mother, she was sharing that responsibility with her two other sisters — in Florida and Connecticut. Her two brothers passed away.
Northern said the stress became too great for her sisters, along with too much shuffling around for her mother, so she will keep her full-time now.
Despite the stress, the situation is manageable. Her mother had arranged for long-term life insurance when she was well, which has covered the day-time caregiving expenses that amount to about $1,000 weekly.
But there are other stressors involved in her mother’s care, like all the red tape involved with insurance companies, Medicare Hospice and legal issues, she said. Hospice, for example, is no longer visiting her mother because — by their measures — her health had improved enough for them to stop coming.
Northern said she would appreciate more resources for things like social services, legal assistance, and even a support group.
“But everyone is at home taking care of their mothers,” she added.