Caregivers Struggle When Parents Age

Most families of our generation don’t talk much about feelings, but when our parent is aging or ill, many emotional issues arise for both the primary caregiver and for other family members. It can be a very challenging time for everyone.

My neighbor recently experienced this when her mother in New York state broke her hip in a fall. She and her siblings had very different emotional reactions to the crisis. Some were “too busy” to help while others implied that they couldn’t cope. Kathy was the adult child who was able and willing to take charge of the situation,  flying over two thousand miles to her mother’s bedside.

We’re the generation caught between growing families and aging parents, with our jobs somewhere in the middle. Managing our stress while balancing these responsibilities can be a challenge.

When acting as caregivers, we spend so much time nurturing our parent, it’s hard to identify our own feelings. Often, we are not able to acknowledge the true emotions inside us because we don’t think we have a right to them. We tell ourselves it’s our duty to look after our parent, or become convinced that we must be the one to step forward because there’s no one else to do it.

Guilt is one of the most persistent and debilitating feelings for a caregiver. Our guilt may be for things we think we did wrong in the past, or for our present, perceived inadequacies. Sometimes we feel others, such as paid caregivers and other family members, are doing more than we are for our parent.

Part of me feels this way. As a well-trained, loving daughter, shouldn’t I be the one looking after my mom? The curious thing is that guilt is particularly common in the most devoted adult children. I’ve felt my share of it over the past ten years.

In her book, Caring For Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents, Claire Berman is forthcoming about the many reasons she experiences guilt — for example, for finding visits to her aging mother and mother-in-law a duty, and for being healthy and leading an active life when they’re not able to.

I’ve tried to include my mother in activities with family and friends whenever possible over the past few years so she could enjoy stimulating venues and mix with people of all ages. She attended many co-housing group events in the past, but now that she’s so frail and interacts less with outsiders, it’s harder for her to socialize.

Guilt takes a toll on us because it gradually wears us down and weakens us both physically and emotionally. It’s hard to make good decisions or give high quality care to our parent when we feel this way.

In our heartfelt desire to give our parent the best care possible and to have a close relationship with them, sometimes we get carried away and develop impractical plans based on our dreams of an ideal life with our parent. For example ,some people choose, consciously or unconsciously, to live with or very near their mother or father in order to heal past issues and develop a better relationship with them. But often, the dramatic improvements they are seeking do not manifest.

As time goes on, adult children may feel a constant subtle undercurrent of dread about what will happen next. We may feel depressed and sad as we slowly come to accept that our parent will not recover.

It took me several years to realize on a conscious level how powerfully my mother’s slow downward descent affected me. Physical decline is expected in elders; her mental losses have been harder to accept. As she moved further inside herself over the years, I’ve had a sense of being slowly abandoned by my mother. A young part inside of me wants to cry out, “Come back!” The day is coming when she may not recognize us as her family members.

Many adult children are afraid that having their parent move into a nursing home will be viewed as failing them or abandoning them. My feelings about my mother and her slow deterioration have been complex. I’ve been able to process some of them through my dreams. After she had been in care for several years, I had two dreams. In the first, the authorities said they couldn’t look after her anymore, that she needed to be “warehoused,” and that I should take her to my home. In the next dream, the same people put her in the “back ward” of a care facility (i.e. a place for hopelessly ill people).

In reality, my mother has been happy in her two care homes for close to five years. She was lonely during her thirty years as a widow. She’s a very outgoing person and loves being around others.

Knowing when a parent is “ready for care” is not an easy question to answer. Some professionals say the elder is never ready; it’s up to the caregiver to decide. That’s certainly the case with some families, but it didn’t happen that way with us.

Our doctor said our mother was “borderline safe” in her own apartment and that many people stay at home too long. Even with her worsening dementia, Mom understood that her living situation was deteriorating. She agreed that she couldn’t go on as she was in her apartment, even with daily help. I told her I would find a good place for her in North Vancouver near us and she said she would try it out.

We’ve been on a long journey together now for the past ten years, a journey that has evoked many emotions. It’s been stressful at times, and has had an undercurrent of sadness running through it. But if I had it to do over again, there’s very little I would change. It’s been an opportunity for my mother and I…for all of us in the family…to connect in new ways, and to become closer to each other. As Mom has settled into her second, and final, care home, close to where my brother and I spend most of our year, it seems that we’ve now come to a place of peace, comfort and joy.

Ellen Besso holds a Master of Arts degree in Counselling Psychology, is a Martha Beck Certified Coach and a Registered Clinical Counsellor. She is a writer and life coach who specializes in helping women access their joy and passions as they navigate the challenges of midlife, including caring for their elders. Ellen has recently released Surviving Eldercare: Where their needs end and yours begin. Reach Ellen through her website: http://www.ellenbesso.com.

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