Caring for Aging Parents: 4 Essential Steps to Navigating Change
I travel on airplanes a lot. Usually, my primary focus is on whether I can get a coffee refill and how much longer I can procrastinate writing my blog. So, basically, exactly the same as when I am at home only minus the barking dogs.
But a big gust of turbulence can quickly change all of this
The bumpy ride doesn’t scare me but it does refocus me, shifting my attention to the fact that I’m actually sitting in a tin can flying at 200 plus miles per hour 40,000 feet in the air and that there are other human beings with me.
In short, turbulence makes the flight very real.
Recently, I had a week where one friend lost her job and another’s daughter graduated from high school. Talking to my friends reminded me that even joyful change is unnerving. But, tough change shakes our understanding of who we are and threatens our sense of stability.
When the change brings grief with it – the experience of losing something precious – then it is all that much more disorienting.
I experienced this going through a divorce… I felt a devastating loss of relationship and family. But, perhaps more disorienting was the realization that a fundamental, take-for-granted part of my life was, in fact, unreliable.
Other than divorce and death of a loved one, few things are more disorienting than the shift from being cared for by your parents to caring for your parents.
When you go from turning to them for refuge to being their refuge
This change creates some serious turbulence – you’ve suddenly lost your ability to cruise around in a state of semi-consciousness, focused on the normal details of life like how much the car repair costs or how you’ll get your daughter from point A to point B.
This turbulence catches us off guard, in part because we have no rituals or ceremonies to signify that this change is such a big deal — worthy of community support. The fact is, human hearts need hand-holding when they are going through big changes.
Without ritual, experiences that would otherwise feel like universal and normal life transitions will instead surprise and overwhelm us.
At its heart, a ritual is an event through which your community says, “Hey – we are your people and we want you to know that we know that this is hard but it’s normal. And, we will help you and you will be okay.”
And at no time is the need for a ritual more necessary than in the transition our parents make to dependency and the parallel transition we make as adult children when our parents cross this threshold.
We need to start creating communities that will welcome people to these new phases of life. Because this is really universal — almost every person who lives to age 65 will experience some level of difficulty managing their life before they die — even YOUR parents.
As we sort out how to deal with this as a society, there are steps you can take to create your very own emotional safety net.
Step 1: Name The Change
A member of our San Diego daughterhood community said to me, “I was two years into caring for my aunt before I realized…. I am a caregiver. It was only then that I could really get the support I needed.”
This reminded me of when I had two really small children and how bad I felt about finding it so hard to care for them on a daily basis…. that it was somehow my own personal defect at work.
Then, one day a woman got on the elevator with the kids and me. My 3-year-old was whining and tugging on my hand and the baby was crying in the stroller. The woman looked at me and said, “being a new mom and having little kids is hard. You are doing great – hang in there.”
Wow. By simply naming my experience for me, that woman lessened its burden. So know this…
If you are handling a parent’s care, you are a caregiver. Being a new caregiver is especially hard. You are doing great – hang in there.
The most important benefit of naming this phase is that it will provide access to so many resources that can help. For example, you have to know you’re a caregiver to know that you can use the AARP’s Caregiving Resource Center or to join the Caregiver Action Network ….both of which are really good places to start in getting a handle on this new phase of life.
Step 2: Acknowledge There’s a New Normal
You need to understand that the help you’re giving your parent isn’t a one time crisis, it’s the new order of things.
Your life is getting harder, your parents are losing precious independence and dignity and things are changing. This is just how it’s going to be now. There’s not anything you can do to prevent it or to stave off its impact.
In her book, A Bittersweet Season, on p. 69, Jane Gross explains, (paraphrased here but go read it in its entirety) “Adult children…are hoping against hope that after a brief period of unpleasantness and inconvenience life will return to normal.”
On a practical level, there is real power and peace that comes from recognizing and acknowledging that there’s a new complexity to your life now and that “normal” looks different than it used to.
On an emotional level, a new sadness will now be part of your emotional fabric forever. But, it’s okay. It adds “texture.” You can handle it.
Step 3: Get Help
Getting help is evidence of strength, not weakness. Thinking you can do everything by yourself to prove your dedication, strength or whatever – is a little bit insane.
You have to be the CEO of this situation – and there is no such thing as a CEO who’s running her company alone.
As I mentioned above, there are online resources to activate and there are also friends and family networks you can turn to. Figure out what you need and pay for help, if you can. Start delegating tasks to other people. You’re not going to win any awards by scaling this mountain alone.
Most importantly, find communities to give you emotional support and encouragement. There’s a terrific online community called caregiving.com through which other caregivers share stories – and lessons learned. And, it has all kinds of great resources too.
You can also check out your local area agencies on aging for support groups. And, of course, with any luck, there will be a local daughterhood group in your area someday soon.
Step 4: Recognize New Strengths in Yourself
As old ways of doing things die off, new ways always emerge. Going through a major transition, learning to adjust to this new normal and getting help will change who you are. Learn to recognize the beauty and strength in this new you.
Maybe you stood up to an authoritative doctor, or set boundaries with siblings. Or, maybe you finally forgave your mom or dad. You’ve learned to let go of little things, to live more in the moment.
This is no small stuff. This is resilience and strength. These actions create new brain patterns that change who you are. And, even though the change is hard, you will probably come out the other end liking the new you very much.
I will always be sad about being divorced from the father of my children…but I’ve created a little space in my heart for that sadness to live peacefully, and in the meantime, I’m pretty happy with who I’ve become as a result of going through this change.
So, as you go through this hard stuff that changes your world forever, just make sure to take the time to really congratulate yourself for rising to the challenge.
In other words, make sure to take the time to reflect on how much you like this new you.