Caring for Elderly Parents
Maybe Mom and Dad just don’t have the energy they used to have and gradually need more help getting around. Perhaps it’s a sudden accident or medical event that means a parent can’t function like they have in the past. Dad’s not as independent as he used to be, or Mom’s gotten bad news from her doctor. Whatever the reason, it’s one of life’s most unsettling changes: your parents need your help to care for themselves.
Most of us grew up with a sense that our parents were there to care for us. It’s rarely comfortable when roles are reversed and we find ourselves parenting a parent. In fact, parent-child role reversal is one of the most unsettling things about this life passage. You may need access to your parents’ financial or health information in a manner that is new and uncomfortable.
Taking care of parents can be highly stressful in many different ways. From a practical perspective, there may be new expenses or more demands on your already-tight schedule. But even more importantly, making decisions on behalf of a parent can feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Knowing that a parent can’t cope for himself or herself can be disconcerting and can produce a mixture of feelings: anxiety, sadness, irritation. Underlying tensions with other family members can flare up into anger and resentment. And if you’re in a committed relationship, your new role may put your partner in an uneasy position at times.
Some elderly parents become dependent, seeking help and reassurance beyond the level truly necessary. When that happens, establishing firm boundaries and expectations is a necessity if you’re not going to be driven to distraction. Other parents may rebuff attempts to help, even when it is needed to keep them safe and functional. This can be equally stressful, and may require elisting the help of others to make sure basic needs are being met.
Family relationships can be quite complex. Some of us may have very mixed emotions about caring for a parent who hasn’t been supportive of us, or about re-engaging a family we’ve moved away from to become healthier and more independent. It’s important for you to sort through your feelings and decide what values are going to motivate your choices. It’s possible to feel love and anger at the same time. You have choices, and even in unhealthy circumstances it is often possible to choose healing and forgiveness instead of resentment and martyrdom.
What can you do?
Realize you don’t have to be flawless. The responsibility of caring for an elderly parent can bring out latent perfectionism. It’s hard to do something perfectly – especially if it’s new and you’re doing something for the first time. Realize the difference between doing the best you can and doing things perfectly. Realize your own limitations. Finding the right level of involvement and care is often a process of trial and error. Gather information. Helping care for Mom or Dad will likely mean needing new information on things that held no interest for you a short time ago – assisted living facilities, Alzheimer’s Disease or cancer treatment. Educate yourself.
Communicate. As in much of life, taking things through is a big part of the answer. Talk with your parent about what he or she needs and what you can or can’t do. Talk your feelings through with siblings or other relatives, if they are part of the picture. And talk with your partner about how all of this impacts your relationship, about his own feelings, about how you will deal with this in a way that strengthens your own relationship.
And speaking of communication, don’t overlook the opportunty to ask questions about family history. If you have questions about grandparents, family origin or your parent’s personal experience, this may be a golden time to have those conversations.
Take care of yourself. Make time to maintain your network of friendships. Take care of your own health needs. Watch your diet, get enough rest and exercise. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, don’t be afraid to get professional help. You don’t have to do all of this by yourself.
Caring for an elderly parent can be hard. But be open to the possibility it is something else – a gift, both to your parent and to you. There can be a sweetness in caring for someone in a way that pays back the love and care you received earlier in life.
I have been licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years. My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression. My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships.
I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems. My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate. If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.
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