Doing Your Best for Mom or Dad in the Final Years

It’s happening in large numbers. We aren’t alone. We’re having to take care of our aging parents. More people are living longer. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean they are healthier. Maybe it’s the medications and procedures that help keep our parents alive. While the ages, and reasons might be different, the issue of “keeping your mind” while you assist someone who is slowly “losing” theirs, looms before you. I’d like to share my thoughts.

First remember that if your heart is in it, then no decision is “wrong.” Few people, even those who daily help others make these types of decisions, can know exactly what is best each step of the way. If you’re having to make decisions that could have been made long ago by the parent, then realize that this was their choice…for someone else (you) to decide instead of them.

At some point you will have to make a decision that is only the best of choices. There might not be a “good” choice available. Odds are, your parent will reach a point when no decision you make will be satisfactory to him or her. If they already had a habit of disapproving your actions, it will be an even tougher path. If they are also in denial about the level of care they need, it will often feel like the parent-child roles have been reversed. It’s almost too easy to fall into the scenario of them stomping their feet that they don’t want to, and you, stomping your feet that you don’t want to either but have to.

There are books available. They deal with the issues of making the home safe; how to help with choosing medical care; how people act when they age; how to talk with someone with dementia. Having many resources will assure you that you are doing it all “right.” I even found (on the Internet) a professional listing of items that comprise the home assessment for determining how much and what kind of help the senior needs so that decision becomes easier.

What might not be so readily available is how to take care of yourself while you are caring for an elderly parent. We tend to forget about ourselves. We might be very concerned about whether a parent is eating properly, yet skip a meal so we can rush to run an errand for them. We will call the doctor for a sleep medicine for Dad because we know how important a good night’s sleep is, yet fail to safeguard our own sleep time.

What’s behind this? Maybe it’s because we were taught not to be “selfish.” We might have been taught that being selfish is a bad thing, and that we must always put others first. That could be true if there’s a choice of sharing a whole cake or keeping it all for yourself. I don’t believe it’s true if being “selfish” is to help keep yourself healthier. Maybe you are working through the idea of “honoring our Mother and Father.” If that is a basis for your care giving, I think you might be surprised at what a clergyman would advise you about limitations.

We can’t give if we are tapped out ourselves. We must take care of ourselves, and our basic concerns, before we can begin to adequately take care of another. It’s been estimated that such responsibility will add 6 years to our own aging process. (It makes us 6 years older than we really are.)

I guess what I want you to take from this article most of all is the permission to “only” do your best for right now. That isn’t your best of all time in your life, that isn’t your best all the time forever — it’s your best for the moment given. We can all second guess ourselves, and do. Take into account your own situation at the time — your own health, your own issues, the resources available, your own knowledge and learning time (for few of us have done this before!)

Think of the decisions you’ve already made. Did you do your best at the time? I bet you did. I doubt you were confronted and decided, “I’m not going to do the best I can.” Be gentle with yourself. Try not to despair. Not all decisions will be crisis interventions.

Some decision making will have to be done quickly, without much time to mull all the options over very long. “Mother fell, she won’t go to the hospital.”

Some decisions can wait till you can call the doctor and wait on a response. “Dad doesn’t want to take the anti-depressant.”

Still others require much more angst in the making. “ Dad won’t go live with anyone, yet his doctor thinks he probably shouldn’t be living alone.”

No article can give anyone all the answers, for this is such a personal area of concern. Your own family dynamics will orchestrate what happens, how decisions are made, and people’s reactions to them. At times you might find the sequencing of actions and decisions rolling right along, all according to how things went when you were all growing up in that household. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way?

If you don’t wish things to be that way, realize that you have the power to change it. As an adult, no one can make you do things. You have intelligence and feelings and logic enough to know what you want to do for your own peace of mind within your own capabilities.

Do your best. Give a good effort. Make the decisions that are foisted upon you. Then step back and tell yourself, “You’re doing a good job.”

When you find yourself overwhelmed — and you will — remind yourself that you aren’t responsible for the way things turned out. Certainly if you could prevent parents from becoming old, you would! (And would become quite rich in the process of selling the secret!) Make sure you shelve any guilt you have from not doing everything you, or another family member, think should be done. You are working with what is now.

Realize that part of what you are feeling is your own mortality. Add in that you might be grappling with the idea of what could have been, and any opportunity of that happening now is quickly fleeing before your eyes. Perhaps you begin thinking about how you want to be cared for when you are in that same situation. If that prompts you to make long-term health care decisions, then it served its purpose. But guilt over not being the all-giving, all-answering, all-energy, always correct, sweet child? No.

It helps to have someone to talk with about these things. While you may hear a good idea to try, you will most certainly hear that you aren’t alone in this. Taking care of an aging parent is one of the most difficult activities a child will engage in. Maybe it’s a rite of passage.