I will be 59 in May. My mother gave birth to my brother when she was 20 years old, and to me when she was 22. My two sisters followed shortly after that. My mother spent her 20s and 30s getting us dressed, wiping our noses and our tears, getting us breakfast, lunch and dinner, and making sure we got dressed, brushed our teeth and took baths.
My mother is now 80 and it’s time for my dad and the four of us, her children, to do those things for her now. Mum (she’s British, so it’s Mum, not Mom) has Alzheimer’s and a slew of other health problems that means she can’t do any of those tasks for herself. Most of the time she doesn’t even seem to care if we do them for her or not. But we continue to do them so when her time comes she will have lived to the end with dignity.
Caring for aging parents, especially when they reach a point where they can no longer care for themselves, is a difficult, often daunting challenge that many of you have faced or are dealing with as well.
Distance often makes matters even more complicated, especially emotionally. My parents live in Bloomington, Indiana, so I can’t just pop in to see them whenever I wish. In this increasingly mobile society, that is becoming the norm rather than the exception. It is difficult not to feel guilty for abandoning them in their time of need. Oftentimes the brunt of the burden of caring for ailing parents falls on one or the other of the siblings; in my case, it’s my sister who lives only 15 minutes away, and that can add even more to the feeling of guilt (“I should be doing more to help my sister!”).
On top of that, dealing with aging parents can be tricky, even if they are still able to function on their own. A recent study from Penn State University found that 77 percent of adult children labelled their parents as “stubborn.” We tend to resist change more and more the older we get and elderly parents can be pretty set in their ways and resistant to change of any kind, even change that would improve their quality of life.
Here are a few tips that I have discovered through this recent challenge:
I can only do what I can do. This might sound obvious but when you are beating yourself up for not doing more you might need to repeat this mantra to yourself over and over again.
Keep your sense of humor. One of the best compliments I got during my visit to Mum recently was from my sister who told me, “Mum hasn’t laughed like that in a long time.” We can laugh or cry, so we try to laugh.
Remember who they are and what they’ve been through. There is a tendency with elderly parents to think of them as stubborn children. They aren’t—they are adults who’ve experienced a whole lot in their lives. Honor that life.
Try to put yourself in their shoes. As frustrated as you are, chances are they are even more frustrated and distraught. How will you feel when you lose your independence and mobility?
Accept the situation. It might not be what you or they want but if there is no alternative then there is no alternative. Accepting this is crucial for everyone’s well-being.
Rob Vajko lives in Gig Harbor.
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