Caring for Aging Parents

Self-care is not selfish.  You cannot serve from an empty vessel—Eleanor Brown

Few of us adequately prepare to take care of our aging parent(s).  Parent care may make its way into our lives after a crisis (e.g., a fall, a dementia diagnosis) and you may find yourself feeling dazed, alone, helpless, trapped, and not knowing where to start.  Stepping into the role of caregiver can generate an overwhelming array of questions.  Should we ask Dad to surrender his driver’s license? Can Mom be left alone? How will this disease progress?

If we chose to be a caregiver to our parent(s), we begin the precarious balancing act of juggling our needs as well as the ever growing needs of our parent(s).  Here are a few suggestions to help navigate this new terrain.

1.      Be informed.  Learn as much as you can about their medical condition.  If possible, avoid making any rash decisions before you’ve had a chance to collect, digest, and discuss the information and the options for treatment and care of your parent(s).  You don’t have control over their illness but the more you learn about it the more in control you will feel.  Check out not-for-profit health organizations (such as Alzheimer Society, Public Legal Education Association), community agencies (e.g., Homecare), or friends or colleagues who may have been through the same thing with their loved one for factual information about what you can reasonably expect for the future.  This will also help you to identify community supports that are available to you.

2.      Avoid making promises.  “I’ll never put you in a nursing home”.  You don’t know what the future holds, and long-term care may be the type of care your parent needs in the future.

3.      Engage in good self-care.  Make every effort to eat well, exercise, socialize, keep up your favorite hobby or activity, take time for yourself, and rest.  This step is not a luxury but an act of survival.  In all likelihood, the journey may be more of a marathon than a sprint. 

4.      Take vacations.  Consider taking caregiving vacations by using respite if it is available.  The challenge to taking breaks is to do so without feeling guilty.  Few of us feel guilty about taking our earned vacation at our paid employment.  We recognize that labor advocates fought for this right so we could stay healthy.  Taking a break is about staying well and it does not indicate a lack of caring on your part.  Guilt is useful because it tells us when we are off our moral compass (that is, acting in a way that is not consistent with our morals and values) and affords us the opportunity to readjust if necessary.  If you’re not off track, stop beating yourself up.   Don’t “should” all over yourself.

5.      Call in reinforcements.  Ask for help from family, friends, or community agencies even if you think you’ll be turned down.  Don’t assume that others know you need help.  No matter how obvious you think it is that you need help, the reality is that other people can’t read your mind.  And remind yourself that you have nothing to lose by asking.

6.      Talk to your parent(s) about their wishes.  Many people avoid certain topics such as money or death but often as people age, they want others to be aware of their wishes.  It will make some of the difficult decisions easier if you know you are helping to carry out their wishes.  Take stock of what your parent(s) may want or need and what you are capable of accomplishing.  Be realistic.

7.      Be respectful.  Treat your parents with respect and dignity even when you’re at your wit’s end.  Don’t talk to them as if they are children.  Avoid nagging and lecturing them. 

8.      Be mindful.  Soak up every moment of the experience with them.  Look them in the eye.  Do fun things with them.  Laugh together.  Play Christmas carols in July if that’s something you both enjoy. 

9.      Don’t avoid unfinished emotional business.  Don’t put off saying what you need to say.  Say it while there’s still time.

10. Get support.  Find support from friends, family, support groups, or seek professional support.  Research demonstrates that social support enhances our ability to cope with stress. 

Caring for elderly parents can be challenging under the best of circumstances but it can be even more daunting for conflictual families.  My next article will discuss some of the issues associated with caring for parents who were abusive or neglectful when you were a child.

To experience peace does not mean that your life is always blissful.  It means you are capable of tapping into a blissful state of mind amidst the normal chaos of hectic life—Jill Bolte Tayloe

Dr. Lisa Berg-Kolody, PhD

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