This is part of a larger discussion I am developing on how to remain human and sane when providing care to others. You can visit that at the top of the main page.
Below are 20 opportunities and needs that I have found, so far, to be of critical importance when providing care that has been needed by my parents. These are guides that have come to aid and support me in both my daily life and long-term planning.
- Remember we are all human beings.
No matter how crazy things get in the course of caring for your parents, keep in mind with each of the actions you take that you and each of your parents, whether biological or legal, are human beings made in the image and likeness of God.
- Love unconditionally.
As bad or negative or frustrating as situations may be from time to time, do not stop loving them. They are the ones who gave you life and loved you even when you were not at your best.
- Take care of you.
Whether you are spending a few hours each day with your parents or you are living with them or they you, take care of yourself too! That goes beyond just getting a physical each year. Taking care of yourself involves being alert to your needs as a human being as much as the needs of your family and those whom you are caring for. It means eating right for you and your family.
Taking care of you means working out, taking walks either alone or with your spouse or friends, vacationing within reason. But most importantly, when you are taking care of your parents, that care is still for their lives. Your life is still about you and living. Make sure you have a separate life that is yours.
- Set aside time to pray and meditate.
Caring for an aging parent is complex with breathtakingly prominent situations, efforts, thoughts, and decisions. Your mind is going to be swirling with all manner of thoughts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These thoughts will run the gamut from happy thoughts and satisfaction that your Mom or Dad are safe or that you did a great job on their behalf to thoughts of abject fear and trepidation about the near accident you had on the road because you were giving your Dad what for regarding the bill you thought he had paid when he really sent it through the shredder. As much as you need physical rest (next up), you need spiritual rest as well. That means time with “I AM”. It means giving yourself time to come back to the spiritual reality that confirms just how strong God’s support is of you.
So how often is “regularly”? At the very least, spend time either before or after weekly Mass to “listen to God”.
But preferably, set aside three to five minutes each day to open your self and your spirit to God. Formal prayers are not needed for this time. In fact, it is usually best to use this time as the collection light of sorts for your day, either in the morning to gather peace and strength the will propel you successfully through the day, or at night to gather that same peace and strength this time to confirm within you the success of the day.
This meditation and prayer are the much-needed opportunities in your Life to recollect upon two critical aspects of what you are doing:
- What is taking place now among you, your parents, and anyone else is far bigger than all of you combined, but infinitesimal compared to God,
- When you seek out the help of God with these corporal works of mercy, you will find His help… if you let Him into your life without reservation.
5. Get your physical rest.
We hear this way too often, even as “just” regular human beings. Yet it cannot be said enough times. Get your physical rest. This does not mean catnaps here and there. Nor does it mean marathon sleep sessions once you have completely wasted your body and mind. This does mean spending eight hours in legitimate sleep so your body is able to rejuvenate itself.
- Talk to a friend.
Many times the person who cares for family members is the person that their friends rely on to talk through and about their problems. You now have to find that friend for yourself. This is the person whom you can regularly meet up with to talk, share some laughs, and chat with on the phone. During your time as the caregiver for your parents, the input and love of a friend is invaluable to you. Even if you are married, you need to be able to talk with someone close to you who is not immediately and intimately involved with your life. This is the person who looks at your life from the outside in. This is the person who can likely see the problems before they arise because of the “close separation.”
Before you ever agree to be the caregiver for your parents, your first call must be to that best friend whom you feel as comfortable with as a brother or sister, but who has no such connection. Tell them what you may be doing. Ask them if they would do what best friends let best friends do with them: care, listen and support. Only if they say “yes” should you pursue the responsibility.
- Have fun.
No one can live without fun. Yet this is probably the first thing that we jettison once we start caring for our parents. That is because we focus our efforts on making sure everything is “just right” for our parents, sacrificing our self, our personality. From personal experience, I will tell you that you need to have fun each day. This is not just “when you have time.” That “time” never shows up on the calendar. This is not your yearly vacation with your family or friends. This is during each day where you keep your sense of humor. Watch Blazing Saddles. Read the daily comics online… out loud… to yourself. Find that favorite football jersey or oddball Halloween mask and wear it. Reminisce with your parents about funny experiences. Tell those funny stories about the past. Remember the humorous experiences that happen today and tell them in three weeks. Most importantly, have lots and lots of fun each and every day throughout the day.
- Manage your emotions as much as you are able.
Perhaps you are very attached to your parents. Maybe you have a tendency to be easily annoyed or upset. Or maybe you are devoid of emotional response to situations as they arise. Regardless, now is the time to make the effort to manage – not control – your emotions. Certainly there are going to be times when you may feel one or more emotions rising. Learn as best as your skills permit to set aside those emotions and focus first on the task or situation at hand. Resolve that issue. Then give yourself that release through exercise or some of the other suggestions below. Here is where #1 and #2 above are critical to remember.
- Protect those “hot” buttons of yours.
Mom and Dad can rattle off what buttons to push on you, in which order, and at just the right time to send you into orbit, take out half a NYC block just by screaming, or dissolve you into tears faster than the baby panda sneezing on YouTube. So what do you need to do? Start by maturing. As strong or willful as you may be, as knowledgeable or logical as you may be, when you take on caring for your parents, you need to gain management of your emotions and how you respond to the words your parents use and their actions. Face it; unless your parents were the lay version of Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa, something they do or say is going to get to you. At least once during your time caring for your parents, one or both will intentionally try to push your buttons. The reason is easy: just to make it clear they still know you better than you know yourself. Don’t let them do it. You might owe them your care; you don’t owe them your emotional well-being.
- Depend upon your spouse.
“Wait! When did you get married?”No, I have not. But friends in similar situations have told me the value of a spouse in support of the effort is immeasurable. As a bachelor, there are many days when I think, “If only I had a wife to help…” But that’s when it hits me also: she is not obligated to help. She has to want to help. The same is true when it comes to women being the caregiver; your husband is not obligated. If you married a quality man, though, he probably will, because he wants to support you as he has supported you within the marriage. Likewise for any other matchup, you must work at the relationship to ensure your spouse actually wants to help.
But also remember that your parents may want to depend on your spouse also. Sure that may make for uncomfortable feelings; get over them. Parents will always view the spouse of their child differently. That is because neither your parents nor your spouse have the railroad car of baggage you and your parents have together. That can be a huge plus in caring for your parents because your spouse and your parents are peers. This is another point at which meditation on #1 and #2 above can provide much influence in your final thoughts.
- Accept that situations have changed.
When your parents begin – in any way – depending upon their child, the world has turned upside down for them… and for you. People talk about “paradigm shifts” but this is a world-change. What used to be “just accepted” will likely no longer apply. Where you were in the family changes. Your old role will change. Even the old emotions you are used to having with them will change. But don’t just call it “change” and brood over it. Recognize it as a time for growth on your part, in maturity, emotion, and knowledge. It is going to be hard, a real challenge. When you embrace the challenge and seek our what is needed to improve, enhance, and most of all, grow, you become the better person.
- Take each change at their speed.
Do not think for an instant that you are suddenly going to change everything inside of a month and then you can move on with your life. Each day, there will be a change of some sort in your parents’ lives. One day it may be becoming acclimated to a new ache or pain. Another day may present to them something much more like difficulty seeing or a diagnosis by a doctor of an illness or greater limitation within their life. These changes will require a range of responses depending on significance, complexity, needs, and a host of intangibles. Each response will be distinctive and require thought, input, and decision-making that takes time. But most importantly, each decision is a change in your parents’ lives that they must adjust to personally. It is their life that is changing.
- Give them their autonomy.
Be mindful that you are still talking to and working with an adult. Sure the mental capacity may be diminished. But they are still people who are still fairly competent. So provide options as opposed to orders. They need to continue feeling that they are taking care of themselves in daily operations. Maybe some of the longer-term things might be your responsibility, but give them the opportunity to make as many decisions as they can about their own care and situation.
- Ask their advice.
As often as you are able, ask for your parents’ advice about things that are also going on in your life. One of the best ways to show love and respect while affirming the special place they still hold in your heart is to continue involving them in various aspects of your life. Have conversations with them on a regular basis and invite them to comment on situations and issues. While you are not obligated to do exactly what they say, you are providing opportunities for all of you to continue your relationships.
- As much as you can, share the experience at the same time.
Both of you are in totally new and probably scary territory. Thus, try to let the changes happen organically – naturally. Don’t try to think ahead, setting things up and then drag your parents through. Allow the process reveal itself to everyone so you are together. Even if you know what to expect, provide your parents the sense you are with them to help them. For as much as you lead your parents through what’s happening, give your parents opportunity to live and learn as well. It provides them a reassuring openness to the larger world with the knowledge you are there to help them when they need it.
- Expect nothing emotionally.
There are many hopes or dreams we may hold within ourselves. Depending on our upbringing, our lives, etc., we may have set up ideals in our minds about our parents and what will happen as they age. Four words: Don’t count on it. At end phases of anyone’s life, there may be sudden openings emotionally and spiritually. Our parents may suddenly articulate a deep abiding love never said before. Or they may deepen and entrench in that nuttiness they have always had. Regardless of what actually happens, when we take on the responsibility to care for our parents, we do so to care for them. We are not doing this for ourselves. Taking on the responsibility of caring for them and expecting or even hoping for that to happen is to wade into dangerous waters. Better to have no expectations and be surprised, than to have your hopes dashed. #1 and #2 above are critical to remember again.
- Expect their anger.
“What anger?” you ask. No matter whatever good intention you may have, when you begin taking care of your parents, they are losing one thing that has been a constant in the relationship with you: authority. That will be very difficult to cede. Thus, the potential is there for them to fly off the handle in frustration and exasperation. But do not equate “anger” with “hatred”. The anger they express is at the reality they are facing within their own lives as they are aging. Hatred rears its ugly head when they sense or view you as taking things away from them.
Again, remember #1 and #2.
- Separate the dysfunctions.
As your parents age, you will find there are dysfunctions that will become patterns in their lives. You have probably become used to the emotional dysfunctions that have been part of their lives since you first remember. The new dysfunction will be the cognitive ones. We’re not talking about Alzheimer’s or dementia. What we are talking about are changes from the “normal” way they have done things in the past. Be sure to track each change. React gently as if it is imperceptible initially. But be sure to bring them up with your parent’s primary care physician and the appropriate specialists. These are new and require a new response. For more information about what is also known as “Age Related Cognitive Decline”, visit:
This is another part of the process where it’s good to remember point 2.
- Prepare for familial insanity.
My family has taken a hands-off approach regarding how I have cared and continue to care for my parents for which I am grateful. It is rare to have family members who step back and just wait until you ask for help or they actually see you are struggling and step in. Usually, there are many, many families who have within them “the expert” in one or more fields. This is the person who knows exactly what should be done, but when it doesn’t work out, they will either run for the hills or condemn you for not doing it “exactly right.”
As friends of mine have told me, “expect the worst from your sibling/s”. Why? Because they are also watching their parents slowly die. People just go positively loony and much of it is because of the emotions that are welling up within them. Whether they are older or younger than you, be prepared for infighting. As a lawyer I know once told me, “It’s about money and those things you loved when you were a kid, plus the furniture, and money, and who’s getting what from the house, and the money, and the stocks and funds, the will and when it was written, who was there and did Mom and Dad actually think of everyone and did they think of each one the way each one thinks the other thinks each one should be thought of.” So prepare for the coming of crazy. Do not engage in it yourself. Of course you need to protect yourself. But your dignity and your maturity are worth far more than money.
This is another time when meditating on #1 and #2 are critical for yourself.
- Love every health care provider you interact with.
Let’s be real here. This is not just about the doctor you are meeting with for one or more of your parents’ conditions. A “health care provider” is everyone who is helping you to care for your parents. These are the obvious – doctors, nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, physical therapists and trainers – to the least thought of – pharmacists, social workers, infusion specialists, front desk staff at doctor’s offices, the caring neighbor who checks in when you are not around, to the cleaning person. They all provide “health care” for your parents. Thus, they need to know how you apply #1 and #2 above when you think of your parents. You want them to hold those ideals in mind with happy, positive thoughts as they care for your Mom and Dad. That happens with a steady show of kindness with each interaction. Learn about them with no more than a minute of chatting about themselves as they care for your parents. Use that information to provide them little gifts of appreciation once in a while that will support their interests, their families. This goes a long way toward ensuring that’s how they feel.