Watching a parent grow old and approach death is one of the more difficult events to experience. Most enter this phase of life entirely unprepared for the changes it will bring to relationships, emotions, and sometimes lifestyle. Many questions arise during this time, including: “Should I take my parents into my home to care for them?” “How involved should I become in managing their affairs?” “How much should I contribute to pay for their care?” “Would it be best to put them in a nursing home?” “How do I balance my care for them and my personal needs and wants—as well as the needs of my family?” “Why won’t my parents acknowledge they can’t do everything by themselves anymore and accept help?”
The book Caring for Your Aging Parents by Donna Cohen and Carl Eisdorfer (1993) identifies some of the most common situations adult children are faced with when dealing with their parents’ aging process. These situations include the following:
Do any of these situations seem familiar to you? Regardless of your particular circumstance, many emotions accompany parents’ aging. Adult children of aging parents often feel angry, grief-stricken, hopeless, inadequate, frustrated, sad, overburdened, scared, overwhelmed, guilty, or stressed out. This event does not have to be such an entirely negative experience, however. If you learn certain skills for coping, you can deal successfully with the changes of your parents’ aging process. The following are some suggestions for dealing with aging parents.
Don’t live in denial.
In order for you to appropriately deal with your parents’ changing situation, you need to accept that something is wrong. Often there is more than just old age contributing to sickness and changes in behavior. These problems need to be confronted and treated. If it is simply the aging process causing changes, you still need to overcome the tendency to deny that a problem exists and realize your intervention may be the only thing that will create improvement. You need to deal with new emotions, adjust to less than "normal" circumstances, and find assistance.
Don’t try to do it all alone.
Taking on complete responsibility for the care of your aging parents is a course headed for disaster. The emotional, physical, and financial burden of such an undertaking is enormous. Learn who is available for support as you deal with the changes in your parents. Get the problems diagnosed by a healthcare professional. Find out what needs your parents will have in addition to medical attention, such as companionship and daily housekeeping needs. When you are aware of all of your parents’ needs, learn where you can turn for partnership. Are their family members you can work with? Does your parents’ community have resources to provide various types of help? What housing and transportation options are there? In addition to this, make sure there are people you can talk to. Trying to work through the intense emotions you are dealing with alone is unhealthy and will most likely cause more problems to cope with.
Don’t give up balance.
You and your family have certain needs that can be threatened if you focus too much on your parents’ aging and on helping them. You need to make sure that your attention to your parents’ needs does not force you to fail in attending to your family’s needs. These needs are both emotional and financial. Is the focus you have on your parents threatening your job? Are your children or your spouse complaining you are never around or are alienating them? These are serious problems, and you must be certain you are not neglecting your primary responsibility to your own family.
Take a good look at the situation, and decide what is most important.
Before you can make any decisions about how to deal with your parents’ aging process, you must understand all the associated problems. Learn about the various implications of your parents’ physical and mental states. What kind of care will they need? What will you be required to do in order to care for them? When you fully understand what you can expect as a part of your parents’ aging, you will be better prepared to make decisions regarding your role and in handling the emotional experience.
Keep your emotions under control.
You can expect that the period of time watching your parents age and approach death will be highly emotional. If not kept under control, your emotions can affect you in significant ways. You may not think clearly about how to handle the experience and how to interact with others. Your family might suffer from your inability to cope with stress, anger, grief, or depression. You may find that your health is affected by your intense feelings. For these reasons, it is essential for you to learn methods of managing your emotions. Many negative emotions can be overcome through various activities: completing a project you enjoy, exercising, talking about your feelings with others, and thinking about positive things.
Learn how to avoid a crisis.
In many situations where parents are aging and having many problems, the adult child’s family suffers greatly. You need to be certain that your involvement in your parents’ situation does not cause your immediate family to break down. Evaluate your circumstances, and recognize where significant conflict may occur. What will you need to do to avoid such conflict? How will you balance your resources of money and time? These are important issues to consider as you cope with your parents’ aging process.
Let your parent go, and move on with your own life.
Although we are all aware that everyone must eventually die, this fact is a difficult one to accept. You will experience great pain while you recognize the need for distancing yourself. You have to deal with several issues. Should you spend less time with your parent? Should your parent receive outside care from a nursing home or another option? Do you need to limit what you do to help? Are you willing to let your parent die when he or she is prepared for it? Keep in mind you have a life you need to attend to, and there are other people who need your attention and care. When your parent dies, you need to resolve certain feelings within yourself. Many people feel guilty or concerned that they did not do as much as they should or could have. You will need to grieve. Some of the ways you can deal with these feelings are to talk about them, write in a journal, and think about the positive things in your relationship with your parents and in your life. As you do this, you will be better able to deal with the loss you have experienced.
Cohen, D., Ph.D. and C. Eisdorfer, Ph.D., M.D. (1993). Caring for Your Aging Parents. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.