Unlike parenting our own children, none of us look forward to the day that we have to begin to make decisions for our parents. It can be scary, emotionally taxing, and physically draining. However, our mental mindset is key to helping our parents through their twilight years.
When I think of parenting my children I can use those same adjectives: scary, emotionally taxing, and physically draining. The one word that seems like it should fit, but it doesn’t, is Burden. Raising my children never felt like a burden, even on my roughest days. Similarly, neither is taking care of my aging parents a burden. It is a privilege to serve them for all they did for me as I was growing up.
Maybe your experience with your parents was not a loving or stable upbringing; however, that does not have to dictate how you take care of them. From the beginning, you can decide what your role will look like when you begin the journey of caring for your parents when their health begins to fail.
Denial Recognizing a parent’s slow physical and cognitive decline is often difficult in the beginning, commonly exacerbated by our own denial. Denial, as a defense mechanism can temporarily be incredibly helpful while we warm up to a painful truth. Denial is less common with concerns that are more obvious, like a broken leg. We would rush our loved one to the ER immediately. But a broken or declining memory is less easily measured, less obvious. However, we must realize that our parent needs our help!
Managing Anxiety Some families manage hard conversations more easily than others. What hampers us from stepping into those conversations? FEAR! If we talk about tough stuff we risk upsetting the whole family, so it becomes easier to just avoid the topic altogether until denial begins costing more than it preserves. What does that mean? Does that mean we talk about it when our beloved parent is on a respirator? We need to communicate early and often. Managing our own anxiety in order to step into difficult conversations is a great gift you can give yourself and your parents. When we have honest and authentic conversations, we invite emotional intimacy into the relationship.
Preparation The amount of research and paperwork that is required to care for an aging parent can be overwhelming.
Do they have a Will? Or even a Living Will?
Who is their Power of Attorney? Medical Power of Attorney?
Are they an organ donor?
Do they have supplemental insurance along with their Medicare?
Timing is essential. These legal documents need to be completed before a medical crisis arises. Perhaps your parents have a friend who is struggling with a terminal illness, or has lost a spouse? This could be a helpful segue to this delicate topic. Know where they keep their documents (lock box, safe, files, etc).
Respecting Preferences Balancing the need to make decisions for our aging parents while allowing them to have their autonomy is challenging during this season of life. Two most helpful filters through which to pass all of your questions regarding Autonomy:
Would I like to be told that I have to move out of my house and into another place that is unfamiliar? Of course not. So, how would it be easier for my parent than it would be for me?
Is this (question/issue) an issue of Safety or Preference? Maybe they do not want to wear their hearing aid today, or they don’t feel like playing bingo with the other residents this time. Those are legitimate preferences that do not influence safety. Preserve preferences as long as possible.
Cherishing Those who have a loved one with dementia can find the “looping” conversations frustrating at times. You may hear the same story over and over again in a short period of time. The natural inclination might be to let them know that they already told you this story. Or, perhaps you might want to finish the story for them, or correct the details of the inaccurate account. Resist the temptation to try and pull your parent back in to your world. They would be there if they could. Get a passport and join them where they are. Instead of worrying about what they have forgotten, enjoy what they remember. Those are stories that may be a cherished memory for you later when you no longer have your parent with you.
Oxygen mask for yourself In the midst of the daily responsibilities of taking care of your parent, do not forget to take care of yourself! Most caregiving adult children give so much of themselves that they find themselves depleted emotionally and physically, often to the point of dealing with their own health issues. Be intentional to build in some things that are relaxing, enjoyable, and life-giving for yourself. If you do not take care of yourself, how can you expect to be there to care for your parent?
Aging is inevitable, so let’s be prepared. Choose your mindset, do your research, have the tough conversations, and make lasting memories with your loved one.
I will be in their shoes someday and hope that my children will do the same with me. If you find yourself dealing with aging parents and would like help navigating this process, feel free to contact me.
Deana Reed, LPC firstname.lastname@example.org 512-238-1700 ext. 318