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When caregiving gets personal

Helping aging family members after you retire is an emotional challenge. Here's how to meet it

You've been a caregiver throughout your career. For most physicians that means having meaningful connections with patients while taking care to remain emotionally unattached.

Now you're retired and find yourself caregiving for a parent or spouse. Suddenly it's much more difficult to maintain that emotional detachment. All those years of medical training won't likely have prepared you for the challenges of being a family caregiver.

That's where Dr. Amy D'Aprix comes in. A life transition expert, Dr. Amy, as she is known, has built her career on helping people navigate the transitions they'll likely go through as they age beyond mid-life.

In 2018 she began running a series of retirement workshops through MD Financial Management specifically geared to physicians. To prepare, she spent time honing in on specific retirement issues most of concern to them. Many had not given much thought to the possibility that they will go from professional caregiver to personal caregiver in retirement.

“You need to give this issue a lot of thought ahead of time," says Dr. Amy. “Chances are you're going to be caregiving for someone — parents, perhaps, but also spouses and friends. It's on the horizon."

Retired physicians must overcome a number of added challenges in their caregiving journey.

The age factor

Physicians tend to retire later on average — Dr. Amy cites an average age of 70.8 in Canada. “That makes a difference because your window is often smaller for doing some of the 'big things' you want to do — things like major trips." One of the unintended consequences of our parents' longevity is that they may not need help from you until you are in early retirement. Clearly, this could impact whether you travel extensively or do other things you might have considered.

“It's not in people's psyche to think 'Gee, I should spend some time building in what caregiving might do to my retirement plans,'" she says.

Everyone has a Plan A, also known as the dream retirement scenario. Dr. Amy says you should also work on a Plan B. Even though it might not happen, you need to ask the question 'If there were a shift in my health or mobility or the health or mobility of someone I love, how might I shift my goals so that I still feel joy?'

The physician dilemma

A retired physician in a caregiver role has medical knowledge on his or her side, but that can be a double-edged sword. Your profession emphasizes objectivity, but caregiving for a family member is very personal, especially when there may be family expectations that you “know the system" or that you “must know how to deal with this since you're a doctor."

Dr. Amy stresses that the long-term care system is not the same as the medical system. “It's hard to navigate … and know what supports are out there," she explains. “And it can be even harder for doctors because not only do they shoulder the expectations of others, but they also have high expectations for themselves — they think they should know more because they're used to being in control."

Taking control

In her workshops, Dr. Amy gets attendees to break down the key issues they need to address as life transitions into retirement. “It comes down to three things: What do you need to think about? What do you need to take action on? What do you need to talk about?"

Looking to the future allows you to be proactive. “A doctor's kneejerk reaction might be that given their medical knowledge they plan to stay in their own home and care for their spouse there. But does that actually make sense? It obviously won't in some circumstances. So we look at what the alternatives are."

She also has people look at their “triggers." Triggers are life events that let them know that now is the time to do something different. So, for instance, it might be impossible for you to have an aging parent move into your home. If that's a trigger then you need to take the next step. Have you had a conversation with your parent about what will happen if they can't manage alone in their own home? What supports are available in their community? Are they on a waiting list for a preferred retirement home?

The takeaway from Dr. Amy's workshops is that though you don't necessarily need to do anything in the moment. You need to be set up for the future. That's how to remain in control as circumstances change. “Caregiving is bound to interrupt your plans at some point," she says. “The transition will be easier for everyone if you've spent time thinking about it before you have to."