The challenge of caring for your elderly parents

Caring for an elderly parent is an energetically and emotionally taxing experience. As the senior’s physical and mental abilities decline, emotional neediness and dependency increases. The new relationship is perplexing, as nature has reversed the roles: the adult child is now the parent’s parent.

It is hard enough to be a parent to one’s children –but caring for a senior may entail helping reduce pain, suffering and loneliness and may only partially improve the parent’s quality of life – is truly upsetting.

Research by Judith Healy and Stella Yarrow of the Policy Study Institute found that parents often feel apologetic about being a burden to their children and research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that adult children are motivated by a strong sense of duty when they take a parent in, but the arrangement often puts severe strain on all family members.

The medical benefits are documented in many studies, one of which, supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, reported that informal care by adult children significantly reduced both physician visits and hospital stay for the elderly.

Older seniors require more than medical help. They are often disturbed by their less than stimulating life and tend to experience sadness, depression, grief, fear and yearning for a more meaningful life. Adult children may help reduce their parents’ discomfort by providing personal care, companionship, medical guidance, entertainment and love. Yet, none of these can significantly alter the senior parent’s physical, emotional and existential state.

The fruitless hard work, many care providing adult children expand on behalf of their parents, often leaves them feeling stressed, frustrated, guilty, grief stricken and overwhelmed.

Adult children experience a gnawing sense of guilt about a variety of issues such as: not doing more for the elderly parent, not spending enough time together, having a more dynamic and active life, getting frustrated, impatient or angry with the parent, not succeeding at pleasing, and failing to provide soothing answers to the parent’s painful questions.

The grief that adult children feel mirrors their parent’s state of sadness and loss. Both generations grieve about the parent’s physical, mental and emotional decline. The adults miss the parent’s former fully competent and functional being. Children may also grieve for the trade from having been cared for to becoming a caregiver. Perhaps most profound is the sadness about one own’s anticipated future decline.

A pervasive sense of being overwhelmed surrounds the adult child’s consciousness. He or she lives in the unreal world of having taken control of a parent’s life. Determining what is best for a parent is hard enough, but encountering resistance for the sake of presumed autonomy is disorienting. The struggle with balancing one’s life and family, while managing the parent’s needs is exhausting. Making daily decisions about whose needs take priority and who will end up short – is a very unnerving state for a caregiver. The strongest sense of overwhelm may be triggered by repeated requests for answers about life and death.

Adult children are often advised by Research findings and well- intentioned friends and family to not feel guilty since they do more than can be expected and to take time for themselves, relax and enjoy their lives as they are loved and cherished by others. Some even address that the stress of caring for one’s parent is shortening one’s life. These and other caring comments feel supportive but are often not practical.

Adult children are advised to consider the following suggestions:

• Do for your parent whatever you can to preserve your self-esteem as a good son or daughter. After your parent is gone, your view of yourself in regard to your caring for your parent will either haunt you or give you peace.
• Do not set out to change your chronically unhappy parent into a cheerful one – this goal may be unobtainable.
• Do not attempt to dispel your parent’s psychological discomfort, emotional pain, questions and regrets. Empathize with the feelings and the concerns about life your parent expresses.
• Enlist the services of geriatric specialists, gather information and invite spiritual and religious authorities to deal with those areas of your parent’s concerns.
• Seek others who care for their parents to share your feelings and thoughts – they understand.
• Use what you learn to guide you in wiser decisions about your life today and in your later years.
• The preview of the future may be a great impetus for savoring your present moments.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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