It might hit you slowly. Maybe the family is gathering for the holidays and you notice that your mom can’t remember the ingredients for her famous casserole she has made forever. Or maybe you realize there’s no way your dad can drag the artificial Christmas tree down from the attic anymore; he just seems a little frail.
Or it may happen suddenly. Your mom falls in the shower and breaks her hip and can’t live on her own anymore. Hopefully it’s temporary, but you’ll have to wait and see.
However it happens, realizing that your parent is no longer a healthy, independent adult can be troubling. And if you’re the caregiver, it can take a toll on your emotional wellbeing. Here are a few things to remember as you deal with the stress and emotional trauma a parent’s declining health can bring.
Expect Unexpected Emotions
Watching your parent’s health decline can bring on a rollercoaster of emotions. Knowing that these feelings are normal and anticipating these emotions can help you deal with them.
You may feel fear as you watch a strong, responsible parent become more dependent on others. You may feel sadness and grieve for the healthy, robust person they used to be. Further decline in health may bring additional feelings of loss.
You might feel angry and frustrated in your role as a caregiver. Elder care takes time out of your life, and you may feel impatience and anger about that. You may feel guilty about not being able to do more. Jane Gross, New York Times reporter and author of In A Bittersweet Season – a memoir about caring for her aging mother Estelle – wrote about the complex guilt and pressure that caregivers of feel. She wrote, “Wherever I was, I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, and I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing.” Even if you’re not the primary caregiver, you still have a role in your parent’s care as a child and a family member. Try to control what you can and let the rest go.
Know Your Limits
Don’t take on more than you can handle. Know when and how to ask for help. If you are overextended, you’re more likely to feel stressed and frustrated. This can put strain on your relationship with your parent and with other family members. It can be hard to ask for or accept help when you’re caring for a declining parent. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one who can do it right, or you feel like you’re abandoning your parent if you relinquish control of the care. One thing that helps is to be prepared with a list of tasks others can do for you when they ask if they can help. It’s important to take breaks and take care of yourself, too.
Celebrate Life Instead
Instead of focusing on the decline, celebrate what your parent can still do. Plan events or outings together that are restful. Take your parent for a drive and let them talk about their life. Even trips together to the grocery store or quiet afternoons in the backyard can be celebrations of life. A common lament of adult children who have lost a parent is that they wish they knew more about their parents and their grandparents. Ask all of the questions you need to now – listen and learn.
Time spent together that isn’t focused on medical care and doctor visits may be more important to your parent than you realize. Even if your parent’s decline makes you feel hopeless and helpless, Jane Gross put it this way: “What is vital, and well within your control, is being present in a consoling way and respectful enough to bear witness to the inevitable.”
Try Not to Stress About Work
If you do take on the role of caregiver, it may be stressful to balance your life with your new role. However, gaps in employment due to elder care are becoming more common. According to a 2018 survey by Express Employment Professionals, taking care of aging parents is an increasing reason that baby boomers are leaving work – either temporarily or taking early retirement. But as this situation becomes more common, employers are getting used to it. Anne Woods, HR professional and owner of an Express Employment Professionals franchise in California, says, “It’s common for older workers to have a gap in their resume due to elder care. I think this has become as accepted as a pregnancy leave.” So if you have to leave work to be a caregiver, know that you’re not the only one in this situation. And if you choose to return to work, know that employers understand and recognize elder care as a reason for gaps in your resume.