Whatever else 79 million baby boomers are doing, one in eight are caring for an aging parent. Some are checking in on an elderly parent living alone, some are caring for a parent in their own home, some are visiting parents in health and care facilities, and others are doing long-distance caring.

Whether well planned or a sudden emergency, this a challenging task. It is one that necessitates changes, parent/child communication, family support, community services, shared information, financial resources, legal expertise, and medical care.

Underscoring this task and coloring most of these factors is the emotional reality that caring for an aging parent is a psychological journey.

Metaphorically, it is one that demands a “return home” in a different role to become the attuned caregiver to a parent, who may or may not have been in that role with you.

Drawing upon years of clinical practice and my own journey,  I suggest four steps that may help to reduce the stress and enhance the privilege of caring. They include: Acceptance, Balance, Connection and Personal Definition.

Acceptance

Understanding the situation and normalizing the responses of both you and your parent reduces anxiety and facilitates acceptance and functioning.

Time Travel

Unlike the care of children which, despite its challenges, is linear and moves forward, care of an elderly parent is more like time travel. It involves being transported backwards and forwards between different points of time.

  • Within hours, even minutes you are making decisions as a parent for a parent, while worrying as a child about the reactions.
  • You are juggling decisions about resources, finances and legal needs while trying to listen as your parent speaks about her childhood, your childhood and which friends are still living.
  • You are worrying how safe a living arrangement is or how appropriate a resource might be, while your parent is insisting there is no need for help while clearly in need of considerable assistance.
  • You are faced with the reality that no one gets younger and no one gets to keep a parent forever.

Your Strengths and Limitations

One of the greatest traps in the care of an elderly parent is a failure to recognize your own strengths and limitations. Understanding what you can and cannot do depends on the needs of the parent, the support of siblings, financial resources, as well as your own needs and situation.

If you can move beyond the guilt of not doing it exactly as your parent insists or not doing it “the right way”(whatever that is) you will be more open to creative solutions that may come from family, friends, church, community and medical resources. Ultimately, you will be better able to sustain connection, be less resentful and be more caring.  

 Your Parent’s Strengths and Limitations

Recognizing and understanding an elderly parent’s limitations while at the same time remaining open-minded about their strengths is key to enhancing caregiving.

Memory Problems

  • There is for many aging parents evidence of memory problems, particularly short term or working memory, which is more vulnerable to aging than long-term memories.
  • Often as a caregiver you can be worn down by the fact that your parent has asked you ten times who just called but can give a detailed description of their childhood home.
  • Sometimes it seems as if there has been a change in mood and memory function in a day – a reality perhaps explained by a recent study that suggests that “ silent strokes” may explain the memory loss in up to 25 percent of older adults who experience memory problems.
  • Essentially, the decline that we see or the strengths that we glimpse in an aging parent unfold day to day. It is our understanding and reaction that makes a difference.

A dear friend confided that he had come to realize that his frustration with his mother’s memory lapses had to do with his upset about losing her as she once was. His frustration, he realized, was becoming more of a problem for her than her memory.

A women was worried about  her Dad in a rehab facility, as he seemed unable to communicate much with her or anyone. She was shocked to find him singing all the words to Sinatra songs with the other residents. She hadn’t considered the stimulation of the other residents or the power of music to arouse dormant memories.

Aware of her short-term memory problem, my mother’s denial was something I came to appreciate.  I once asked her, “Who  is the president?” Her response was perfect, “Who cares?”

Levels of Happiness

In our attempt to understand what our elderly parents need – we often overstep and project our needs. A new Pew Research survey reveals that our projected expectations are not accurate for our parents. Research suggests that until you reach their age you really can’t know how it feels.

On seeing elderly people, younger people often say, “I don’t want to live that long – how can they be happy?”  The reality is that most are.

  • Research revealing the U-bend of happiness tells us that middle age is actually the most stressful.  From there on, there  seems to be growing happiness into the later years- regardless of money, employment status or children.

Balance

One of the most important aspects of  self-care as a caregiver to your parent is balance of  family,work, play and caregiving.

  • A recent study on woman caregivers of elderly parents, found that while the overload was greatest with women caregivers who had careers and partners, this group had the lest resentment about caregiving and the greatest reported life satisfaction.
  • This suggests that multiple roles, much like diversity of caseload with professionals, may actually serve as a protective factor to burnout.
  • One step that reduces the burden of competitive needs to invite family members and partners to join in on some of the caregiving – Children and grandparents can be a wonderful and mutual resource  for each.
  • Caring for an elderly parent is something most partners and spouses understand and support – particularly when love  and time to just be together remains important.
  • Central to any balancing act is the caregiver’s need to reduce stress through favorite activities – be it gardening, exercise, music, a poker game or choir practice on a regular basis.

Connection

Both caregivers and aging parents need connections. Research informs us that networks of support are crucial in reducing caregiver stress and social outlets reduce loneliness and hopelessness in aging parents.

  • Siblings are often a primary source of support for care of aging parents. Some siblings do this seamlessly in a way that  provides levity and meets different needs of the parent.
  • Some families are drawn together for the first time by the critical needs of an aging parent such that joint caregiving offsets old hostilities and offers a new appreciation of each other.
  • “ Not the Brady Bunch” – For many caregivers, the source of support is a friend or outside network. We don’t get to pick family.

Personal Definition Of the Journey of Caregiving

In this culture, the needs of an aging population are mounting and adult children are playing a major role in their care. More than a task, caregiving for an aging parent is a psychological journey that involves challenges and complex feelings on personal and interpersonal levels.

  • For some, it will be the opportunity to give back to someone who has shown great love and care to them.
  • For others, it will offer the promise of parent-child closeness unknown before. One that can lighten old pain and add new memories.
  • For a few, it will reflect giving that continues to be without appreciation but validates the essential goodness and hope of a child’ love.
  • For a significant group, it will be a journey of care and heartache with a parent who no longer remembers but is nonetheless remembered and loved.

For All- It Will Be A Journey of Pain and Privilege

Listen in to the Psych UP Live podcast with Dr. Deb Serani on Recognizing Depression in the Elderly