We of the baby-boomer generation are feeling the pressure as we provide care for our elderly parents. It is painful as we helplessly watch our loved ones experience the impact of failing health. We feel powerless against the ravages of deteriorating health and mourn our losses as our parents begin the descent involving their incapacity to live independently. Children undergo the process of grieving as one’s parents move closer to the end of their lives. Family dynamics may shift.

The process of grieving hopefully brings healing and closure to children who care-take for elderly parents. However, more typically, it takes its toll in creating upheaval and conflict among the children. As elderly parents come to the end of their lives, the grieving process may serve as a catalyst which affects core issues and dynamics among the surviving children. If there are unresolved issues harbored by any family member, they will invariably surface during this time of distress. Grieving and loss have a way of opening the door for unfinished psychological business that has been “swept under the rug.” One can only hide the pain for so long and then inevitably the truth, wrapped in emotional baggage, will make itself known.

The children of an aging parent are forced to deal with a myriad of new decisions and problems. However, legal, financial, and questions related a parent’s possessions tend to be the focal point for conflict among siblings during the process of parental decline. Children, who face these issues with their unresolved baggage, create tension for the entire family system. Hopefully, parents help minimize the impact of sibling conflict by structuring their Will and financial matters effectively.

Quibbling over finances or belongings may represent the way in which children play out their unresolved conflicts toward the elderly parent and their interaction with each other. They may feud over jewelry and other personal possessions belonging to the parent, leaving the elderly parent feeling resentful or guilt-ridden. The turmoil may exacerbate the parent’s declining health. Misunderstandings may exist over who gets what and when. Interpersonal conflict emerges when the grieving process serves as a metaphor for unfinished family business. Although most parents dread the prospects, it is not unusual for children to break communication with each other after the death of their parent.

Because feelings are more intense during the declining health of an elderly parent, the children are more prone to become reactive. Reactivity leads to anxiety, and anxiety promotes misunderstanding and defensive communication. Like the advent of premarital counseling, perhaps there should be therapy for children who are trying to navigate the process of caretaking for an elderly parent in deteriorating health.

What are some of the ways that children can cope more effectively while caretaking for an elderly parent and avoid the traps that cause interpersonal damage?

• Make sure that there are legal documents in place, including a will, durable power of attorney and a trust. They should be updated, particularly if there is any transition from state to state.
• Make sure that your parent specifies, outside of the will, items to be distributed equitably to all family members.
• Children of the elderly need to work on responding, by promoting understanding, rather than reacting with defensiveness and resentment.
• Children should seek professional counseling assistance when they are unable to manage their personal grief and it begins to affect their functioning as well as other family members.
• Learn to keep things in perspective. Money and things are not worth severing relationships and causing hurt feelings within the family. Our legacy and our families should be based on the quality of our relationships.

Caretaking for the elderly is a difficult process. It takes patience, wisdom, and the ability to sort out issues related to our parents and siblings. We must take the high road consisting of integrity when dealing with our family members. There are no guarantees that they will do the same. Nevertheless, we must vow to make peace with our past, care for our parents, and let go of our loved ones in a way that will bring harmony and healing to our life. In doing so, we will never have regrets.

James P. Krehbiel 2011

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James Krehbiel

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC, CCBT is an educator, writer, licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He specializes in treating anxiety and depression for adults and children. He served as a teacher and guidance counselor for 30 years and has taught graduate-level counselor education courses for Chapman University. In 2005, he self-published Stepping Out of the Bubble: Reflections on the Pilgrimage of Counseling Therapy (Booklocker.com). His latest book, Troubled Childhood, Triumphant Life: Healing from the Battle Scars of Youth (New Horizon Press) is about the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult functioning. He offers solution-focused strategies to assist adults in overcoming the perils of the past.

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