You have a house, you have a decent car, you’ve been working at the same career for some time now and you have made somewhat of a name and success for yourself. Your children may be in their teens or older. Maybe, even AARP has come dangling their discounts. You finally feel like a full-fledged adult. You finally feel that you can hold your own in political conversations with your parents. There are moments when you even feel respected by your parents: an equal of sorts.
Then, before you know it, you enter into this new developmental stage of your life. Where your parents are aging and getting sick and you must begin to shift your role from the kid to the caretaker, dare I even say, you have to act like a parent to your parent. Many of my clients are so heavily navigating this phase and I would like to share some of what I’ve learned is helpful.
This endeavor is not for the faint of heart because, let me tell you, even the sweetest of old grannies will buck when you start to shift the tables on her. I am sure I am going to be one of the aging parents who gives their kid all kinds of shit when I start growing older and they start trying to take over. I know myself well.
When I write the book about all the things we have been so woefully unprepared for, both through our formal and informal educations, this chapter will be big and thick. I want the middle-agers of us to not be surprised by how unbelievably hard this time of our lives can be and I want them to know how they can compassionately navigate this very challenging phase.
I think the first thing I want to say is that there is no easy way to navigate this phase. It’s like going to the dentist or the long, trafficky ride home after Christmas vacation. You just have to bear it. I was going to say grin and bear it, but as I find myself in the midst of this phase, I have to say, there’s not much grinning. Now laughing, yes there’s plenty of that. I would say it is the paramount coping skill to be able to laugh with your parent (and others) as you try to navigate whatever unforeseen and potentially cringeworthy scenario you come upon. There will be moments when all you can do is laugh because life is handing you and your parent the most ridiculous scenarios.
You are going to be angry, you are going to be sad, confused, overwhelmed, dumbfounded, panicked, doubtful, grieved, lost, and absolutely frustrated. Let all those feelings come, let them hang out in and around your body as long as they need to. Say them out loud to your pops or your mom, ‘cause you know they’ve got their own plethora of unnamed emotions running amuck as well. Then remind yourself that it’s all ok. Even the hard, negative emotions that we don’t want to admit to, all of them are ok. And if you let yourself name and feel them, I promise it will make this phase just a tad easier.
The thoughts that run through your head (the ones you’re not even telling the priest about), those are ok too. Thoughts spring spontaneously into our minds (well not exactly, they’re usually connected to emotions, but that’s for another post). The point is you didn’t ask for this uncomfortable thought and just because you’re having it doesn’t mean it’s true. And, that scary, hard thought you’re having about your parent or this situation is in no way connected to your character. Much like your emotions, let it come and let it pass. You will grow wearier by the moment if you tack on self-judgement to the impossible tasks ahead of you. Don’t add to your burden by making erroneous conclusions about who you are because your thoughts at the moment are not of the rainbow and popsicle type.
Get support. This support can be in the form of other family members, although for lots of us that support would up this game of Rubik’s cube to Tetris proportions. Support can come in the form of a case worker for your parent. Someone who can help you navigate the doctor appointment and other necessary arrangements. This is a person who has done all the leg work that it would take you months to slog through. They understand where you have to go and how to get you there. If your parent qualifies, or if you can afford it, make this your first support stop.
Join a support group. Facebook is a great starting point for these kinds of groups. You can start on Facebook connecting to adult children of parents with your parent’s particular needs and then move to finding an actual face to face (probably virtual) support group. There is an aha/relief moment from finding people in similar situations with similar problems and feelings about those problems that is so unbelievably valuable.
Talk to people. Talk to your trusted people, especially your friends, because either they’ve been there or they’re on the way there and we want to normalize this time in our lives for as many people as we can while we also get the support we need. Talk to anyone about it. If you hear someone at a restaurant talking about their struggles with their aging parent, send them a cocktail or an order of nachos and let them know you know them, you get them and that you’re all in this together. When we talk about the hard things in our lives, they shrink. They don’t disappear, but they shrink and maybe they even get a little less overwhelming.
Do normal shit. Do not let yourself be consumed by the care of your parent. You will have a life following this phase and you don’t want to wear yourself out, creating illness for yourself so that you can’t enjoy your own life following the passing of your parent. Take the vacations, enjoy the dinners out as much as you can. A life put on hold is not a life. As you are keenly aware as you watch your parent lose more and more of what made them whole, life is so unbelievably precious. Putting it on hold is a fool’s game. You don’t want to be a fool.