6 Things to Remember as You Start to Care for Your Parents
~ By Jill Eelkema, MSW & Rachel Kobelt, MSW ~
Most of us will live to see our parents through the final years of their lives. There are major relationship role-changes adult children may experience as their parents transition from an active retirement lifestyle to one requiring more in-home care and decision-making by others. These role changes are at times uncomfortable, unfamiliar and leave adult children feeling isolated, resentful and guilty. Here are six suggestions for overcoming some of the obstacles and frustrations commonly experienced during this time.
As awkward as it may be, start a conversation with your parents about how they want you to help. Try to keep the communication lines open, even if you are just planting seeds. Adult children often try to help with the same tasks their parents are working on – and end up stumbling over each other in the process.
TIP: Ask your parents what they would like to have help with. Set the expectation the conversation will be revisited when plans need to be adjusted.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR GUILT.
Whether it’s from a lack of appreciation for your efforts, resentment of perceived obligations or simply because you are exhausted, the reality is there are some days you won’t want to help your parents. People often feel guilty that they don’t want to be a caregiver anymore. We work through our guilt when we have people around us who can validate our experiences — and let us know we’re not doing anything “wrong” by having these feelings.
TIP: Find other people who are also going through this caregiving role, whether it’s people who are close friends, a caregiver support group or an online community. You will feel better when you know you’re not the only one having these feelings.
ACCEPT THAT YOU WILL MOURN.
You’re going to mourn the loss of your parents’ independence as much as your parents probably are. This can be a frustrating juxtaposition in role reversals. As your parents lose their independence, they want to hold on to what control they still have; while you, the caregiver, try to maintain your independence as you take control of a situation your parents don’t want you to be in control of
because you are their child.
TIP: Set a schedule for family meetings to talk about the role adjustments everyone is experiencing. The meetings could be weekly, monthly, quarterly, or however often you feel is necessary to have an open dialogue with your parents. Keep in mind holidays can be emotionally-charged and make sure to commit to finding a neutral time and place to meet.
EMBRACE YOUR NEW IDENTITY.
Understand that becoming a “caregiver”, whether you’re close by or in another state, is a new identity. When we first take on new identities, there is a tendency to have it conflict with how we currently view ourselves. This “caregiver burden” is a feeling of “I’ve always been a daughter or son and now the tasks I’m taking on don’t fit with that role.” The greater the caregiver burden, the more likely someone will feel this identity conflict which can result in symptoms of depression.
TIP: Be patient with yourself in your new role. “The biggest thing a person needs as they find themselves in the role of caregiver is support. They need to be able to add the additional caregiving tasks and also continue to pursue things they love,” explains Jill Eelkema, MSW and manager of the Aging & Disability Resource Center at the Denver Regional Council of Governments. “A lot of caregivers will give up on the things they love and then they lose even more of their own identity, the things they’re proud of about themselves.”
Take a step back as some of what you will go through will be sweet or funny. “My dad had taken over my grandma’s finances shortly after Grandpa had died,” remembers Eelkema, “but there was a steep learning curve as Grandpa had always given her an allowance to spend. Now she was expected to manage her money for the first time in her life. The bank called one day because Grandma had given her bank account number to the Republican Party. According to Grandma, she thought it would be easier for them to just ‘take out what they needed’. When she died, we had this sweet memory and a laugh when we found the Bush’s Christmas card proudly displayed on her fridge.”
TIP: Keep a journal of your experiences as a caregiver. Highlight the funny and lighthearted moments by writing with a different color pen or font. Differentiating those entries will allow for you to quickly go back and find the joyful experiences.
ESTABLISH YOUR OWN BOARD OF DIRECTORS.
Having a network of support is important to maintaining a healthy outlook on your new caregiver role. Sometimes it is necessary to have a smaller, specific circle of support to help you correct course when they see you may be off track.
TIP: Make a list of people you can check in with as time goes on. They should be people who know your situation and will give you honest feedback about how you are managing in your new caregiver role. They should also be people who will tell you if you need to find additional support through counseling, joining a support group, or simply taking more time to do the things you love. Find people you trust, feel connected with and who have walked with you through hard times in the past.
These 6 steps are meant as suggestions and not meant to be taken as a prescribed program. Ultimately, following even a few of these steps may lead to a more authentic experience for adult children and the way they are able to interact with and enjoy the end of their parents’ lives.