There is often talk in the media about young carers or the 'baby boomer' generation - the people who have the double responsibility of looking after their kids and their elderly parents at the same time. But what about when you're in the middle of those two groups and have to make life changing decisions for a parent when you've barely got your own sh*t together? What do you do when the person you've always gone to for help, is the one in need?
My mum died suddenly from cancer when I was 22, at the point at which my dad's multiple sclerosis was so severe, both physically and mentally, that I became his full time carer for six months whilst my elder sister and I sorted a long-term care plan. Over the ensuing eight years, my sister and I have somehow navigated our way round the (terrifyingly disjointed) social care and National Health systems and made a series of life changing decisions on his behalf - all whilst attempting to live 'normal' lives as a twenty-somethings. The level of responsibility and guilt associated with this is unfathomable and something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
Unfortunately, it's pretty inevitable for a great deal of us and now, at the age of 30, it's something I'm noticing more and more amongst friends' parents. This role reversal and shift in responsibility can be sudden or, more often than not, slow and sometimes unspoken. Lots of people will have a 'moment' - a point in time that's been building for a while when something shifts and you have a moment of clarity: you have become your parent's parent. My moment came when my dad fell in the shower and I had to go into the bathroom to help him get up, whilst being ordered to 'keep my eyes closed'. I sat and held his hand until an ambulance arrived and I knew in that moment something had irrevocably shifted.
So what happens if you've started noticing little things your parents are less able to do or you have a similar 'moment' to mine? Or something terrible happens that thrusts you into being responsible for one or both of your parents, way too early? Here are a couple of things I've learnt along the way, that might help you cope with something no one ever really prepares you for:
Accept it - When it became clear my dad needed to move to a nursing home, we were given a list of 'suitable' places and sent on our way. They ranged from the god awful to the just about OK, and we spent one Christmas driving round the homes and imagining our lovely, kind dad spending 24 hours a day in them. We left several crying and declaring we would just look after him ourselves. But, as much as no one actually wants to live in a nursing home, that feeling is far surpassed by a parent not wanting their kids to give up their twenties to hoist them out of bed every day. So any feelings of guilt should really just be dismissed at this point. And this applies to any further decisions: there are no right or wrong answers and as you're a product of your parents, you're going to have to assume they'd agree with your decisions.
Ask questions and do your research - The next thing to do is start asking questions. And lots of 'em. All the time. Ask your employer what carers leave you're entitled to; Google every question you can possibly think of and use online charity forums to research anything a Google search won't help with. Ask other people in nursing homes if they like it there; ask your mum or dad if they'd feel safe; ask the nurses how their days are. I guarantee you won't ever regret asking a question.
Don't be afraid to argue - Be the person that you'd want in your own corner. Be patient, be polite but be pushy. Unfortunately, health care professionals don't always take two young women seriously and at times, we've been made to feel like we're making a fuss. Well that's fine by me. A fuss is the very least someone is entitled to.
Make the most of your able body - My dad is pretty much bed bound and whilst I could sit with him every minute of every day, I could also be out doing brilliant things with my time to make up for the fact that he can't. I live in London and travel to Leeds every second weekend and report back on all the wonderful things I get up to. In his more lucid moments, when he engages with my stories, it's really bloody lovely and I feel like a daughter with a dad again. You can cry tears of frustration over a failing body, but really, what's the use? Taking up boxing and pretend the bag is MS, or run marathons and imagine the pavement is cancer, or do yoga and ommmmmm the shit out of dementia. It's a much better use of energy and will give you some stories to tell.
Have difficult conversations NOW - Like right this minute. Text your parents, be mushy, tell them you love them and ask if there's anything you can do to help. Then the next time you see them ask some uncomfortable questions about care, resuscitation orders, wills etc. The most morbid and horrible of situations are going to be compounded by second guessing someone's wishes and there really is no time like the present.