How to balance life as a nurse when a parent needs care

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It's similar to the way everyone tells you, "it all changes when you have kids." Only with nurses, your perspective changes drastically at a different life stage: when a parent starts needing ongoing medical care. You may have worked as a home health or geriatric nurse for decades and still get thrown when your mom or dad (or both) requires medical care or enters assisted living.

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In a nutshell, "for most of us, even though we understand in our heads what it means to grow older and to need assistance with medical issues and even activities of daily living (ADLs), we have a hard time accepting this for our parents," registered nurse Rebecca Patton, past president of the American Nursing Association, wrote in American Nurse Today. "The transition is equally difficult for our parents, who may still view us as that less competent child of 15 or 20, when we are really 40, 50, 60, or older. Our parents often also express their unwillingness to be a burden."

How can you do well with both roles – adult child and professional nurse – when your own parent is the patient? Here's advice from medical professionals who have been there, done that:

Put your medical expertise in the background. Amber Miller, a nurse's aid for a large Southeastern hospital has first-hand experience with family members of ailing parents. And she also knows what worked when her own mother had colon issues. "It's key to keep in mind how easy it is to get overwhelmed. Here you are, a medical professional with so much experience to draw from, but this is your loved one," Miller advised. "You can really get stuck with medical information buzzing around you. You want to know what's going on with your parent, what tests they've run, what medicines they need. Not only can you run yourself ragged, you can become so hyper-focused on your loved one's care to the point you can forget about their own comfort."

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Let someone else take lead. "Our best role in this situation may be as the daughter or son, asking a non-relative to be the advocate," Patton added. "It is important to refocus and look at all options, to make decisions taking into account the needs of the parents and the larger affected family. An unrelated advocate may be better able to help us see these options."

Look out for yourself. "I learned that I'm not alone," Miller said. "I understand that sometimes you are the only child to your parents, but if your parents have a support network, you need to learn to use it. Your parents are sick, but you also need to take care of yourself. Learning to take a step back and take personal time to renew your own resolve is a must. Especially if you're dealing with a terminal illness. Nurses and any healthcare professional really need to learn to manage their stress. Yoga, reading, watching a movie, anything to simply let you sit and get your mind off the situation for a while is so important. You can't live in a constant state of fear/anxiety."

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Advise yourself like you would any family member. A good way to take a step back from the emotional pull of a parent requiring health care is to go into professional mode, but only for an hour or so. Jacquelyn Northcutt Mantooth worked at an assisted living facility for years and is now a school-based therapist in Tennessee who holds a Master's in Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She recommended tapping your professional expertise just long enough to outline what you'd advise a family member in a similar situation with a parent.

"Ask yourself, 'What would you tell someone else's family in this situation?'" Mantooth explained. That advice could be anything from "keep mom more active" to "your dad probably would feel reassured with more phone calls from distant family members." It's not going overboard to commit this advice to a letter or text. Then switch seats, as it were, and see what advice you the nurse have for you the family member. "Put yourself in the other role," Mantooth added. And then stay there. In this situation, you'll do the best as your parent's advocate and source of strength.

Eye the decision to be primary caregiving carefully. Everyone knows a nurse who works full-time and also assumes the whole burden of caring for an aging parent. Patton disagrees with this approach. "Is this person doing a good job of staying intact and rested?" she said. "Probably not. I hear nurses say they are thinking of quitting, or have already quit, a job in order to move back home to care for an aging parent. Stop and reconsider."

What Patton advised was to consider the long-term and the short-term of a situation that involves a nurse adult child and an aging parent. "In the short term, what might make sense can jeopardize you and your family in the long term. Looking for other solutions may be far more appropriate," she said. "It is important to continue to take care of ourselves."