Browse the bookstore. Check the Web. You’ll find extensive information about how to assist your aging parents. What you’re unlikely to find, however, is help for the myriad feelings you will experience as your mom or dad ages. Baby boomers frequently share with me the roller coaster of emotions they experience as a parent’s health declines. They are unprepared for these intense reactions and need help understanding them. Most of all, they need reassurance that their reactions are normal.

How Will You Feel?

Initial reactions

  • Fear. When you first realize that your mom or dad is becoming less functional, you will likely experience fear. If you have thought of your parent as capable and strong, it is frightening to anticipate a role reversal — one where you are now there to care for them.
  • Grief. — As your dad ages he will no longer be quite the robust man you once knew. This change will trigger the same grieving process that accompanies other life transitions. Further, you will probably grieve each major change in your dad’s functioning over time. If you think of grieving as a healing process — one that leaves you intact after a loss — it will be much easier to endure.

Ongoing feelings

Three factors influence the quality and intensity of your emotional reaction as your parent continues to age:

  • your typical reaction to change and loss
  • your relationship with your mom or dad
  • your level of direct involvement in your parent’s life

If you usually react well to change, you are likely to handle the decline of your parent relatively well. If you have a good relationship with your mom, the quality of your feelings will be different than if your shared history has been fraught with indifference, emotional distance or conflict. Your degree of involvement with your father will have a unique impact on your feelings. Here are the specific emotions you are likely to experience as your mom or dad ages:

Sadness. Almost everyone feels a degree of sadness as they watch their previously healthy parent decline.

Anger and frustration. No matter how much you love your mom, it is normal to feel impatient and angry about the changes that aging triggers. If you are personally involved in her care, you may feel particularly frustrated with the way her needs interfere with your life.

Guilt. You also are likely to feel guilty as your parent ages. Your remorse may be in response to the anger and frustration discussed above. You may also feel guilty if you live far away from your dad, or, due to other life demands, are unable to spend sufficient time with him.

Coping With Intense Emotions

  • Accept that these reactions are normal. The feelings will be less troublesome if you don’t fight them.
  • Control what you can and let go of the rest. You can’t change what your aging mom is experiencing. What you can do is provide help and support.
  • Don’t take on more than you can handle. Consider your commitments to your work and to other family members when deciding how much of your dad’s care to take on. Overextending yourself will leave you stressed, and will put a strain on your other relationships. Worst of all, you may end up taking your frustration out on your parent, causing you intense guilt.

As your parents age you will feel a wide range of emotions. Anticipating these reactions and preparing for them will make life easier. You will then be able to capitalize on the happy times with mom or dad, and feel good about the kind of daughter or son you have been.