How to Deal With Your Aging Parents

Peter Rosenberger, author of the book Hope for the Caregiver: Encouraging Words to Strengthen Your Spirit says, “If you love somebody, you will be a caregiver. If you live long enough, you’ll need one.” The tips in this article are an effort to support a caregiver, often in the baby boomer generation who are in the stage of witnessing and assisting with the decline and death of their parents.Because no two personalities or histories are identical, dealing with an aging parent is a unique experience. Nonetheless, there are some basic principles that can be helpful as you navigate a similar journey. Perhaps the list will resonate with you and you can incorporate these principles in your own situation.Accept what is. Be less invested in the ideal way to age and how it should look and practice more acceptance of the reality. Avoid the tendency to judge and blame, because it does not change the situation. Allow the parent to be as they are now. It is their journey, not yours.Ask about your parents’ wishes early. If your parents are still independent, ask them if they foresee themselves moving into a senior community. Do they wish to stay at home with homecare or live-in help? What are their hopes and expectations? Do they want life-prolonging care, limited medical care, or comfort care? Engage in conversation to uncover their wishes and revisit the questions as their health changes.Hear what your loved one really needs. Instead of doing what you think they need, double check the wishes of your parent if they are able to communicate. There may be a large gap in perceived needs. Moving ahead without verifying what your loved one wants can cause additional duress for everyone. By checking in with your parent, you can avoid the need to back pedal or apologize later when their desires clash with your unchecked actions.Listen. Deep, compassionate listening can help relieve suffering. In conversation, if you don’t know what to say, simply listen and be with them. If perseveration or inappropriate verbalization crops up, it may be prudent to change the subject or exit the room.Put documents in order. Does your parent have a standard or living will, advanced directives, end-of-life medical wishes, healthcare proxies, medical power of attorney? Where are their documents located? Do you have copies? Have you created these items for yourself too?

Prepare for death. Does your parent wish to be buried or cremated? What other end-of-life decisions can be handled or discussed now? Do you have handy phone contact information to notify professionals as well as family and friends when death occurs? Do you have this matter prepared for yourself as well?Create Lists. Compile lists of bank accounts, financial institutions and investments, advisors, doctors, medications, allergies, and other important people and issues that will come in handy when the need arises. Update these lists annually or whenever changes occur for your parent and yourself and keep them in a place where you have access and others can find them easily.Remember that little things add up. Sometimes little things mean more to your parent than you might think. Showing your loved one a picture that might please them, massaging a sore spot, reading to them, or bringing a favorite food item can make a difference, even if it seems a small gesture to you.Gather support. Create a network of neighbors, friends, family, and agencies that can work together for the care of a parent. Communicate within the group to keep everyone up to date and apprised of changes and current and/or anticipated needs. Reach out to agencies such as hospice when you need more help.When reporting to relatives and friends, state what is going well first. Observing, focusing, and sharing what is working can buffer the less optimal news that comes subsequently. Look for some good news to share.Create memory and scrap books. Compile special photographs, recipes, and stories in a book that can be shared and enjoyed now and as a keepsake for after death. Chip away at the collection to honor the life and legacy of your parent. Utilize professionals to assist you if your time is limited.Write love letters. Encourage or assist your parent in writing love letters to those they care about in their lives. These letters might be to their kids, grandkids, or friends whom they wish to say a few kind words about, expressing what they mean to them. These letters can heal and leave a special lasting legacy to those left behind at the time of passing. Consider writing your letters now too.Practice giving and receiving. Your parent might be painfully aware that you are giving more than they are able to reciprocate. This imbalance may be a heavy burden to them. Anything you can do that fosters more balance between giving and receiving may be helpful to you both.Maintain boundaries. You still have your own life to live and other roles to play. At times you will have to say “no” or “not now” to keep balance and health in your life. You may have to reclaim power that might be slipping away by asserting your needs as well. Give yourself permission to say no at times and hold your ground.Drop the guilt. Forgive yourself and forgive your parent. You are both doing the best you can under challenging circumstances. Be kind to yourself, nurture yourself, and ask for assistance to support you through this phase of life.Remember to breathe. Deep breathing will calm you when you are feeling fearful or anxious. Place your hand on your lower belly and count to four while slowing breathing in and watching your hand rise. Then to another count of four, slowly exhale all the air completely. Repeat several times.Find some humor. Laughter will help you lighten stress and worry. If you cannot laugh at the moment, have a funny book to read or a movie to watch later to unwind. Tune into your favorite comedian. Ellen DeGeneres often creates a chuckle. She said, “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the hell she is.”Play a game or read to your parent. Play a game of cards or checkers to pass the time and stimulate the mind. Read a book you like or an old favorite of theirs to your parent. If their hearing and mind can appreciate it, invest in audiobooks that can be played when you are not there.Remember to take it a day at a time. Worrying about tomorrow does not help you to live in peace today. Have plans in place to navigate future contingencies and then do your best to think only of what can be done today and let tomorrow come as it will.

View the situation as an opportunity for spiritual growth. Instead of focusing solely on the ordeal or only on the perspective of loss, explore the spiritual aspect of the unfolding events.Realize that there may be frequent ups and downs by the week, day, or hour. Avoid the poles of catastrophic or hopeful thinking that may drain your energy and lead to false conclusions. Brace for the ups and downs and have patience as you swing through the stages.Wait before responding. Often you will need to pause before responding to avoid knee-jerk reactions or regrets. Perhaps go and take a drink of water before you answer. If tension is high, consider taking a walk to blow off steam, giving yourself even more time to compose your thoughts and words.Seek healthy stress relief. Your body may accumulate stress in muscles, creating soreness, headaches, and back pain. Consider scheduling a massage, acupuncture, or chiropractic appointment. Avoid the buildup of ailments with treatments that align, balance, and replenish your body.Depart from visits thoughtfully. Because you never know if your loved one might die suddenly, grab chances to express love and heartfelt goodbyes at each departure.And finally, allow yourself and your parent to be imperfect. Even for an organized person, decline and death rarely proceed perfectly according to plan. And there may be no plan at all if death is sudden or if there was a refusal to prepare. Unexpected things happen. So circle back to the first tip: accept what is.These tips were derived from a chapter in the book A Chance to Say Goodbye: Reflections on Losing a Parent. The intention of the book is to provide support and guidance to caregivers and adult children of an elderly person.