Sometimes you lose a parent suddenly. However, what you don’t realize until you’re older and have a parent entering the final stage of life is sometimes you lose a parent a little bit at a time.
My father is 81 and although he suffered a minor stroke this past year, he’s an old codger that still manages to get around. He was a dynamic, energetic man and yes, it is hard to watch him slow down. But he still gets around, believe me.
On the other hand, my mother is 76-years-old. We have watched shocked as her physical and mental health deteriorated at an alarmingly fast rate this past year. A year and a half ago she had hip replacement surgery and her mind never fully recovered. Before the surgery she was sometimes confused and could not keep an appointment straight, but afterwards she didn’t know who I was most the time. Her mind slowly came back, but never fully.
As her doctor told her after a memory test earlier this year when my Mom couldn’t draw a clock correctly, “you know something’s not right, right?” My heart broke for her, but I’m really proud of her that she can laugh at that now.
My Mom is a classy, dignified lady, so I don’t want to disclose too much. But I think she would readily admit that she is constantly confused about what day of the week it is or if it’s morning or evening. On top of that, she is in advanced stages of osteoarthritis and the bones of her neck are collapsing into each other so she is always bent over looking down at her feet. Simple things we take for granted, such as getting dressed and eating, are now difficult of her.
But she puts one foot in front of the other and I think she is one of the bravest people I know.
So how do we boomers keep our bliss while watching the bodies and minds of the people we love decline?
Nearly 10 million adult children, ages 50 and older, are caring for aging parents. This is a fairly new phenomenon. In 1900, only one out of 25 people were over the age of 65. Life expectancy has increased 25 years during this past century. The most dramatic demographic change is the increase of people 95 years and over. This is the fastest growing change and is expected to increase by 200 percent in the next 20 years.
Although that means we boomers can expect to live longer, we have to remember with old age comes a greater the likelihood of health problems, weakness, fragility, and the need for family help. It is no longer unusual for retirees over the age of 65 to be caring for an aging parent.
With that in mind, here are a few tips to help caretakers cope with the physical and emotional demands:
- Express your feelings to someone who will listen, empathize, and understand. This can provide a release and lessen the pain. If you are a spiritual person, prayer is invaluable.
- Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise. If you become exhausted, you’re more likely to get sick yourself and lose your ability to be an efficient and effective caretaker.
- As I learned recently, watch for warning signs such as mounting frustration and out of control emotions. This may be difficult, but that means you MUST schedule time for relaxation. By doing so, you’ll be in better condition, both emotionally and physically, to take care of your loved one. Nurturing our own bodies and spirit gives us the strength and endurance to continue.
- Instead of focusing on our own feelings all the time, don’t forget that our parents need love and reassurance – often desperately so. Like us, they need to feel valued and that their lives are worthwhile.
- Allow your parents to make their own decisions to the extent possible. The elderly are not children, but adults with a lifetime of wisdom and experience. Often times, the less you try to control their lives, the better your relationship with them will be and the less likely they are to become angry, demanding, helpless, depressed, or withdrawn. If you must overrule a parent’s wishes, do so with kindness, open communication, and honest explanations. Your parents have lost much; allow them to keep their dignity.
- Boomers are often juggling caregiving with other responsibilities such as demanding jobs and caring for their own families. Sacrificing our sanity for the sake of caregiving is not the wisest route. Delegate and ask family members or friends for help or consider hiring someone.
- Don’t make hasty decisions based on emotions. Decisions about a parent’s life are not easy or simple. Take the time to carefully explore all your options and do not have preconceived ideas about what is the best solution.
If caregiving is hard, it is also a labor of love. It is a chance to connect with a parent and pay them back for all those sleepless nights you cried incessantly and inconsolably and they comforted you. As I am discovering, caring for a parent is a life-changing experience and one that is often as rewarding and inspiring as it is painful.