Passover has come and gone for the year. The songs and stories are memories, but they have served to remind us of who we were, who we are, and who we might be. We are strengthened by the ancient story. What does this have to do with caring for aging parents? They, too, have their stories, their history, and their adult children are an integral part of their past. Adult children may play an even bigger part of their parent’s future when it comes to their role as caretaker and the psycho-spiritual issues that may arise in caring for an aging parent.
The role of adult children as caretakers to their aging parents can be a source of conflict and tension. When parent(s) become older or sicker, the role of caretaker can become reversed and with that change in dynamic can come many questions. “Is it necessary to involve full-time health care professionals?” “Are mom/dad better off in an assisted living facility?” “Can we manage to take care of mom/dad in our home?” Sometimes adult children in caretaking roles can cause conflict between siblings and a power dynamic is created.
First let’s define the role of a caretaker. It’s a person who cares for someone, often around the clock, giving every bit of attention and service to that individual. Is this the “job” of the adult child? To avoid burn out and resentment, perhaps it is best to distance the parents from the adult child. To be truly helpful and present, every attempt should be made to separate oneself from the emotionally charged atmosphere of living with the parents. This way there can be space for sharing memories of the past, bringing a piece of happiness and break from the normal routine in the day. The latter may bring about feelings of guilt for making the decision to have “others” care for the parent, while the former may not allow for proper care of self because all of the time is being spent with the aging parent.
Let’s discuss self-care and the importance of the maintenance of one’s own body and mind to be able to assist another. If an airplane was making an emergency landing and the oxygen masks came down, would you put the mask on yourself or your child first? The correct answer is the mask should go on you first so that you get enough air to then take proper care of your child. The same goes for caregivers. If there is a lack of self-care, how can you properly assist your parent(s) and more importantly be present for your own family?
The impact on the family system can be great. If the adult child is dedicating time and energy for the care of the aging parent, others in the immediate family of the adult child may feel neglected. This can cause a divide in the family system, yet another area where resentment may play a role.
Some people believe it is their role and responsibility to care for their parent(s) regardless of what other life stressors may be going on at that time. One caveat in being a caretaker is that one may not know how to care for themselves. Regardless of which role you play, the caretaker is one that may neglect his or her own needs for the sake of another, especially out of guilt. The guilt feeling comes from the thought that your parent cared for you and sacrificed for you all these years, that the least you can do is return the favor, to support them in their time of need and vulnerability.
One thing adult children could keep in mind to help them in caring for their aging parent is that the aging parent may be avoiding the fact that they are getting older and they are unable to accept the aging process. They may have feelings of shame, guilt, helplessness, and denial about getting older and needing assistance from their children. It requires a level of vulnerability to accept help, especially from your own children.
In many cases, adult children are faced with the reality of their own mortality when caring for an aging parent. They have to come face to face with their fears and they may wonder how their own children will care for them in the future.
One thing that adult children can do to help prevent chaos is begin to make a plan with their own family. Take advantage of the present moment while you are still healthy, and discuss end of life issues and a plan of care with your own children. Sit down with your adult children and talk to them about plans for Alzheimer’s, dementia, cancer, and burial arrangements, etc. It’s never an easy or comfortable conversation, but a necessary one. By having this dialogue, maybe you can help to alleviate some of the stress and burden that you or your loved ones may experience.