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80,000 South Dakotans Care for Aging Parents or Friends

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One-in-six working South Dakotans provide care for an elder family member or friend. SDPB’s Lura Roti visits with a couple from Sioux Falls who invited their elderly parent to move in with them this winter.

After his dad died Dave Herbst’s mom transitioned from the traditional role of farmwife and mother to that of an independent woman and business owner. At 58 she was active and healthy. She fully intended to grow old on the family’s farm. And for 20 years things went as planned.

Then one day a phone call changed everything.

“My brother called me, it was noon on a Monday, and he said, ‘I was just on the phone with mom, and there’s something wrong. She’s trying to explain something to me and she’s mixing up her words. I don’t really understand what she’s saying, there’s something wrong with her,’” says Dave Herbst.

A medical evaluation revealed Dave’s mom had suffered a stroke. It impacted her mobility and speech. 

“I point blank asked the doctor, ‘can she live by herself? Or does she need to have somebody with her?’ And before the doctor could answer, mom pointed at me and said, ‘I’ll go with him.’ And I thought, ‘OK, so there’s an argument I don’t need to have with her.’ I called Kris, and honestly, I thought it would be two to four weeks,’” Dave says.

And just like that, Dave and his wife, Kris joined the ranks of the estimated 80,000 South Dakotans who provide elder care. 

“A lot of caring for our elders takes place at home. There’s this stereotype that once a person becomes more frail, once a person needs help, they go to the nursing home. And that stereotype is really a disservice to every family caregiver that is balancing raising children, working and caring for an elder family member,” Leacey Brown says.

Leacey Brown is the Gerontology Field Specialist with South Dakota State University Extension. And she says in South Dakota, it’s estimated that some 67 million hours of elder care are provided by family and friends.

In Dave and Kris Herbst’s situation, helping care for his mom was a responsibility they had been planning for explains Kris.

“We’ve been kind of planting the seed for a few years, that you know you might just want to come live with us. You know it’ be OK. It’d be great to have you around. You just kind of drop hints here and there, letting her know that the room is yours if you want it,” Kris Herbst says.

The Herbsts have a spare room and the couple both have the option to work from home. And although the idea of caring for Dave’s mom in their home was not foreign, it has changed things. 

“Obviously, your lifestyle changes, right? It has to. And you adapt for that. And you make sure that somebody is almost always here with them…So it has meant that we may not be able to do all the things as a family, leave for a weekend or you know, just do things the four of us, things like that,” Kris says.

Among the challenges they face as caregivers, is making sure Dave’s mom lets them know when she needs something. 

“She is a stoic farmer. Her hand could be cut off and she could be dripping blood all over and she would say, “I’m fine.” And when she says, ‘I’m fine.’ That’s her way of saying, ‘I don’t want to bother you with this.’ At least, that’s how I interpret it. So, the willingness to sit down and ask the sometimes some tough questions and get them to answer you is a big transition,” Dave says.

His mom Doris does not deny this. 

“Sometimes its like that. …I don’t always say everything, but it’s been wonderful here,” says Doris Herbst.

Letting others know how they can help, can also be a challenge for caregivers. Leacey Brown says creating a list is one way to communicate how others can lighten the load.

“I’m a big advocate for writing down everything you are doing and then figuring out, OK, what could I reasonably ask someone else to do? And then making specific asks. ‘Hey, can you go to Walmart? Here’s my grocery list. Can you go buy groceries? You know, oftentimes people say, ‘Oh, just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you.’ And most people never let anyone know what they can do to help,’” Brown says.

Brown also recommends communicating with your employer early. 

“It’s just really important to outline what you’re going through and what’s being asked of you. And clearly what you’re hoping your employer- how they will work with you to make this family caregiving – the burden a little easier. And we don’t like to call it a burden because we all love our loved ones. We all want to take care of our loved ones, but we all know that its tiring, it’s a lot of work and it can get exhausting,” Brown says.

Having grandma live with them has changed the family dynamic. But Dave says when he sees their 12-year-old son help his mom steady herself, or their 10-year-old daughter help her put on her jewelry, he knows his mom isn’t the only person benefiting from the new arrangement.

“It’s always easy to think about yourself, but they’re starting to see that there are other people in the house,” Dave says.

Because needing help is a natural part of aging, Leacey Brown encourages South Dakotans to begin visiting with their family about how they hope to be cared for so that they can be actively involved in the decision process. 

If you are a South Dakotan providing elder care or you want to learn more about elder care and resources available to care providers, visit SDPB.org.

  • Leacey Brown, SDSU Extension Gerontology Field Specialist 605-394-1722 or Leacey.Brown@sdstate.edu
  • Dakota At Home: https://dakotaathome.org/ 1-833-663-9673
  • South Dakota Department of Human Services Long Term Services and Supports: https://dhs.sd.gov/ltss/default.aspx