Ways to stay sane caring for an elderly relative
By John Shore, MadDad
One of the most emotionally complex and difficult things a person can experience is taking care of an elderly parent. I recently spent time tending to my aging, widowed father, and thought I’d pass along these 8 points, each of which I found to be significantly helpful during this phase of my own life.
- Accept that things have changed– When a parent starts in any way depending upon their child, the world has turned upside down. Be prepared for that radically new paradigm. Old roles may not apply; old methodologies may not apply; old emotions may not apply. Be prepared to work from – and write- a whole new script.
- Take it slowly– Taking care of an elderly parent is generally a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t rush it. You and they both are in uncharted territory. Let the process reveal itself to you; to the degree that you can, let whatever happens unfold organically. As much as you lead what’s happening, follow it.
- Expect nothing emotionally– At the end phase of their life, your parent might open up to you emotionally and spiritually; they might express for you the love that, for whatever reason, they haven’t before. But they also might not do that; your parent might even more tenaciously cling to their crazy. If as you care for your aging parent you bond with them in a new and deeper way, of course that’s fantastic. But if you’re expecting or even hoping for that to happen when you go into caring for them, you will wade into dangerous waters. Better to have no expectations and be surprised, than to have your hopes dashed.
- Expect their anger– When you start taking care of your parent, they lose the one thing they’ve always had in relationship to you: authority. That’s not going to be easy for them to give up. Expect them, in one way or another, to lash out about that loss.
- Give them their autonomy– Insofar as you can, offer your parent options instead of orders. It’s important for them to continue to feel as if they, and not you, are running their lives. Let them decide everything they can about their own care and situation.
- Ask their advice– A great way to show your parent love and respect — and, especially, to affirm for them that they are still of true value to you — is to sincerely ask them for advice about something going on in your life.
- Separate their emotional dysfunction from their cognitive dysfunction– Insofar as you can, through your conversations and interactions with your parent, learn to distinguish between their emotional and cognitive dysfunction. The patterns of your parent’s emotional dysfunctions will probably be familiar to you; those, you’ll know how to deal with. But their cognitive dysfunction will probably be new to you. Track it; react to it gingerly; discuss it with your parent’s health care providers. Mostly, just be aware that it’s new, and so demands a new kind of response.
- Pray or meditate– Life doesn’t offer a lot more emotionally salient or complex than caring for an aging parent. Accordingly, then, open yourself up to God, whatever that might mean to you. Be sure to get down on your knees regularly, or sit comfortably in a quiet place; close your eyes; breathe deeply and slowly; and wait to come over you the peace that surpasses understanding. What you’re undergoing with your parent right now is bigger than you, your parent, or anyone else involved. Do not fail to avail yourself of the great and mighty source from whose perspective it has all, already, been resolved.