When Sudden Emergency Makes You a Caregiver Overnight

When Sudden Emergency Makes You a Caregiver Overnight

For most caregivers, their situation comes about as a gradual progression. They see their senior parents or elderly loved ones slowing down. They start helping out a bit more here and there. The problems their parents face slowly become more prevalent, and they require more time over the years. Eventually, a family caregiver might be taking care of their parent full-time, but they were prepared for that transition.

For some caregivers, however, the responsibility of caring for an elderly parent happens in the blink of an eye. It might occur in the aftermath of a fall, where a hip fracture or head injury sidelines their parent for an extended period of time. It might happen after a stroke, when the sudden insult to the brain means months or even years of rehabilitation and healing. A sudden medical emergency or accident can spell disaster, and that means an adult child might become a family caregiver in an instant.

While there are ways to help ensure that the impact of a senior accident or emergency is lessened – such as gifting your parent with senior alert systems with GPS and fall detection that allow them to get help fast at the touch of a button – the long-term effects are still going to impact your life for a very long time.

Becoming a Caregiver Overnight

It might be some consolation to know that you are definitely not alone. According to the AARP Valuing the Invaluable 2023 report, about 38 million Americans spent 36 billion hours caring for adults with chronic, serious, or disabling health conditions.1

There are no statistics to count those who fall into the “sudden” caregiver category, but it’s easy to imagine how it happens. One hard fall, one heart attack, or one stroke later, and the elderly person who was so independent only a moment before now needs round-the-clock care.

While there might not be firm statistics on how many people face this issue, analysis studies have looked at what it means for those who become family caregivers overnight. A study in BMC Geriatrics found that those who assume a caregiving role with little warning often have a much more difficult time with all aspects of caregiving, and that that initial stage of caregiving is the worst as the person tries to adjust to their new reality while juggling the other elements of their life.2

One of those other elements is the work life of the person who is now a caregiver. Surveys have found that 60% of caregivers work full time. When a sudden disability or illness hits a family member, that can turn anyone’s work life upside down. Though most can tap into at least a few days of paid time off or some sort of limited family leave, the time only goes so far before you have to figure out something else.

Tips for Handling the Sudden Change

A change that occurs this quickly tests your ability to think on your feet. It challenges your resilience in dealing with an avalanche of information and worries all at once. But as so many others have discovered over the years, you can do this! These tips can help.  

·        Take a deep breath. No matter how much support you have, this is going to be a long road. Take a moment to process what has happened. Perhaps it’s as simple as a moment in your car after you get to the hospital, or a few minutes to breathe at home in the midst of the “what now?” chaos. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and then another. Calm your body and mind as much as you can. You’ll need to do this a lot over the next few weeks, and that’s okay.

·        Gather your tools: A notebook, pen, and folder. There will be a lot of information coming at you all at once. You’ll need a way to organize it all. Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. A folder is a good idea as well, because nurses and doctors will be more than happy to print out information for you to read during downtime. Keep track of every printout, pamphlet, and bit of paperwork handed to you.

·        Research and ask questions. A medical crisis can catch us completely off guard. The medical jargon can be overwhelming, especially when your brain is trying to adjust to the new reality. Go to reputable sites on the internet – especially places like MedLine Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine – to research the diagnosis, and ask questions about things you might not understand.3

·        Set up a chain of communication. You can’t be expected to keep everyone else updated while you manage the situation. So choose one person to update, keep them informed, and let them do the rest. Anyone who calls you can be directed to speak to the designated contact for now. Hold firm in this – it’s a good first step in establishing boundaries, which is something you’ll need to do more often in the coming weeks. 

In the days following a life-changing event:

·        Figure out what to do about work. If you are in the working world, your employer will likely understand and be quite sympathetic to your need to take a few days to figure things out. But after that, things can get tricky. If it looks like your caregiving duties will be extensive and take up much of your time, speak to your employer about the possibility of a flexible schedule or working from home. If that’s not possible, the Family Medical Leave Act might come into play. Talk to your human resources department (if your company has one) and research your rights.

·        Accept help in every form. When someone offers to help, take them up on it. Community, family, and friends tend to rise to the occasion and be at their absolute best in a crisis. So when someone asks how they can help, have a short list ready to go. Maybe they can walk the dog, make a casserole for dinner, or run a brief errand for you? When life throws something hard your way, people are often relieved to have something concrete to do to help you out.

·        Make arrangements for better safety. What will your parent need when they come home? The answer might be a few minor home modifications and an emergency button alarm to allow them to reach out for help immediately. Or it might be a hospital bed, IV pole, and round-the-clock nursing care. Whatever it will take to make your home safer, now is the time to do it.

·        Be aware of burnout. Caregiver burnout is a very real problem and it can happen sooner than you expect. Never hesitate to reach out to family or friends for help with some of the burden. A professional counselor can help you get through the worst of it by giving you the tools to better cope. As you move further into the caregiving journey, turning to respite care is a good option. You can even go online during a moment when things are quiet and hop onto one of the dozens of good message boards out there to connect to other family caregivers and find support.

·        Take care of your health. Right now you are heavily focused on the health of your senior loved one, but you must focus on yourself as well. Make a point of eating a good breakfast, staying hydrated, carrying healthy snacks with you, and exercising when you can. Limit alcohol and find other ways to relax, such as talking with friends or going for a walk. Getting enough sleep is always very important, but especially when you’re dealing with the stress of major life changes.

Adjusting to a New World

Remember: this will get easier. The first days and weeks of becoming a sudden caregiver can send your world into a tailspin. It looks like chaos now, but soon the situation will settle into more of a rountine. Sometimes we dwell on the worst possible outcome, only to find that the end result is not nearly as bad as we feared.

The old saying “an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure” suddenly applies in a big way. Before your elder loved one gets home from the hospital, prepare the home to accommodate their new needs. Aging in place home modifications not only make the home safer but give you strong peace of mind.

Enlist the help of friends, family, and a good general contractor to install grab bars, build a ramp if your parent needs a wheelchair, move furniture around if you will need a hospital bed, and more. Choosing a medical alert necklace with fall detection is also a good idea. Anything that brings more help to the situation is crucial for your own well-being, and that can include knowing that trained professionals are on the other end of that medical alarm, always waiting and ready to help.