In the past three weeks I’ve had numerous conversations with people who are taking care of aging parents. Just this morning I spoke with a friend who’s been in and out of assisted living facilities, doctor’s offices, and hospitals more times than he can count. Having been a fulltime caregiver for more than three years when my husband Michael was sick, I know how complicated and overwhelming it can be. And my heart goes out to you if you’re dealing with this situation now.
Becoming a caregiver to a parent is something most of us will experience at some point, and learning how to do it with good self-care in place, can help keep the love alive. While I know each situation is unique, here are a few suggestions that might help:
1. Get ongoing emotional support. As you go through the process of providing care to a parent, you will need a safe place to talk about how you feel. You will need to vent. You will need to grieve. You will need to know that someone out there cares about you and wants to know what’s going on. This person should know how to listen well, how to hold back advice when it’s not appropriate to give it, and how to be present with uncomfortable feelings so you’re free to be real and honest.
2. Find a “resource advocate.” It can be incredibly helpful to have someone in your life who’s able to conduct research. You may have to locate specialized medical care, get help with insurance forms, check into living facilities, or find a good doctor. Delegating these activities can help ease your burden and it can be a wonderful way to allow someone who cares about you to help when he or she feels helpless. While taking care of Michael and managing our lives, I swear I lost brain cells, my memory, and a whole lot of patience. Sharing the burden of information gathering made life so much easier.
3. Don’t take bad behavior personally. If your parent is difficult, negative, or irritable, it’s probably because they’re afraid. After all, they’re going through their own challenging life changes. Keep in mind that we all tend to regress into protective behaviors when under stress. Some people go into denial and lose themselves in mindless activities. Others get irritable and end up being impatient or brusque in their communication. Some complain nonstop about every little thing. Try to remember that it’s not about you. It’s about the tough situation.
4. Allow yourself to experience all of your feelings – even the “inappropriate” ones. There will be times when you experience thoughts and feelings that make you feel guilty. You might be so emotionally overwhelmed by the roller coaster ride that comes with the end of life process, for example, that you find yourself wishing your loved one would pass so the craziness will stop. Please remember that your feelings are just feelings – normal responses to dealing with new and complicated circumstances. If you respect and honor these thoughts and feelings (and share them with someone safe), you’ll move through them with greater ease and clarity. And you’ll be a better caregiver for your parent.
5. Be willing to have “courageous conversations.” Most of us don’t talk about death or end of life issues; let alone say what we need to say to feel at peace with one another. It’s too scary, painful, or uncomfortable to step near those lines. And it’s not always well received. The funny thing is that bringing consciousness – intentional, open conversation – to the topic can reduce fear and open our hearts. When we shine a light into the darkness, things get a little brighter. Be brave enough to initiate a conversation about end of life issues and see what happens. Tread gently and respectfully. You might be surprised to learn that your parent has been thinking about things like estate planning or what will happen to special items once they’re gone, and your courage has now opened the door for further conversation.
By Cheryl Richardson