As your parents or your spouse’s parents get older, they will probably need your help. They will also possibly need professional help with their daily care. The very people whom you depended on in the past will be turning to you for assistance. The fundamental nature of your relationship with your parents will change in a more dramatic way than you have ever experienced. Now you and your spouse will be the caregivers.
Caring for your parents as they get older is often a stressful experience. There are many emotions you might experience along with your new responsibility. When you become the caretaker of your parents, it’s very important for you to be aware of your emotions. It can make the difference between having a meaningful, rewarding experience and having one of the worst experiences of your life. The following sections describe the most common emotions people feel when they are faced with their parents becoming older and less independent.
One of the first things you might feel when facing a parent’s decline in function is—nothing. It’s very common to initially be in denial about a difficult situation. When you are in denial about something, you are trying to convince yourself that it’s not really happening. For instance, imagine that your father, who lives alone, is slowing down and becoming weaker. You want to keep thinking of him as strong and healthy, so you tell yourself that he’s generally fine. In the short run, that makes you feel better. But, your father probably shouldn’t be living alone. And you won’t be able to help him find a safer place until you are able to acknowledge his limitations. Denial can prevent you from facing facts and making necessary plans.
Another emotion you might feel is anger at your parents for being unable to take care of themselves. For example, you might feel that it’s their fault for not staying healthy, even though you know that they are not getting sick on purpose. You might resent the fact that they are taking so much of your time and energy. You are especially vulnerable to feeling anger if your relationship with your parents was less than perfect. It’s more difficult to take care of someone that you feel some resentment toward. But, even if you have a great relationship with your parents, caring for them might feel like a huge burden. It makes sense that you might feel angry because you have been shouldered with a big responsibility.
Don’t take your anger at the situation out on your spouse. Instead, discuss your feelings of anger or resentment with him or her. Remember that your spouse can be your strongest source of support during this difficult time.
Even though you are grown up, you might feel like your parents should always be there to take care of you and still help you through difficult times. Seeing your mother or father helpless can make you feel helpless. You might think “If my parents can’t take care of me, who will?” You are your parents’ child, even as an adult. And when one of your parents is weak, part of you is going to feel like a scared, helpless child. Even though you know that you can take care of yourself, you still might feel that you need your parents to take care of you.
Guilt is one of the strongest emotions people feel as a parent becomes older and less able to care for him- or herself. There are many reasons that you might be feeling guilty. You might feel that you are not doing enough to help your parents. This might be true, or you might be doing more than a reasonable amount and feel guilty anyway. You might feel that if you had done something different years ago, then your parent would not be so ill now. For instance, you might think that if you had taken your mother’s complaint about feeling weak and tired more seriously, her cancer would have been diagnosed earlier and she would have been cured.
If one of your parents is very sick and needs a lot of expensive care and a lot of your energy, you might be secretly wishing that he or she would die so that it would be over. This thought would probably cause you to feel incredibly guilty. It’s very common to feel this, and it’s a completely normal reaction. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your sick parent and it doesn’t mean you are a terrible child. It means that it’s very difficult and possibly very expensive to care for an ill person—realities that can prompt all kinds of unexpected thoughts and feelings. The best way to deal with these feelings is to acknowledge them but still do as much as you can to care for your parents.
A Sense of Loss
When your parent is no longer functioning at 100 percent, that is a big loss. It’s normal to feel sad, and it’s actually a mature feeling. Feeling sad when your parents are ill and unable to take care of themselves means that you have accepted the situation and the loss that occurs when your parent’s health declines. You shouldn’t hold back tears. Crying is part of feeling sad and it’s okay to express your emotions. That doesn’t mean that you should spend years moping around and crying as your parents become more and more ill. But sadness comes with loss, and you should give yourself permission to feel it.
Parents are the buffer between you and your mortality. Most people are able to ignore the inevitability of their own death as long as their parents are alive and healthy. But as your parent’s health declines, you will probably become highly aware of your own mortality. You might start thinking about the end of your own life or have frequent nightmares about dying. You might start examining where you are in life and re-evaluating your long-term goals. When you face the death of someone close to you, it will often spark thoughts about your own life. This is good, and the way to make use of this constructively is to realize how precious life is and what is really important to you.