How do we survive caring for aging parents?
To survive caring for aging parents, we must have an understanding of the past. Growing older is a foregone conclusion from the moment of birth. While younger, we frequently asserted that, as we grew older, we would not act this way or be guilty of that behavior. As we started families of our own, our parents took on the newly-defined-but-significant role of grandparents. We placed great emphasis on their involvement in the lives of our children and proudly called them "grandparents." By the time our children become teenagers, their attitude towards grandma and grandpa alternate between genuine warmth, tolerable amusement, and maybe covert disrespect.
Meanwhile, we try to "keep the peace" and bridge the generation gap. We remind our children that times are changing and that grandma and grandpa are no longer young. Only as we approach our own middle years, can we fully appreciate the waxing and waning cycles that existed in our relationship with our parents through the years.
Now, frailty has subtly taken over the bodies of our mothers and fathers. We have reached a new stage in our relationship with them; we now call them the elderly or senior citizens. Dealing with aging parents requires that we understand some of the changes, not necessarily physiological, that are taking place in their lives. Emotional, mental, and even spiritual changes occur. Our parents seem less tolerant than they used to be. We notice their energy level has decreased. Given an opportunity, they choose staying home alone over going to dinner with friends. It takes Mom longer to get up and get dressed than it used to. Minutes before it is time to leave for dinner at your home Dad will call to say, "Your mother and I just aren't up to going out today." Inflexible is becoming a regular word in our vocabularies as we struggle with our parents' inability to cope with changes in routine or last-minute plans.
In general, we are forced to deal with the realities that accompany these changes. Mom's arthritis is painful and is slowing her pace of life, physically. Dad's emotions are changing, due in part to the aging process, and he sometimes becomes petulant. Our parents are transitioning through a part of the lifecycle that is often referred to as disengagement. This means they will spend more time craving the solace of their memories and the company of only each other, and less time at family gatherings. Both of them tire more easily than they used to. They want you to visit more often, but one of them invariably falls asleep in their chair while you are there. When you visit, the topic of conversation may often turn to loved ones who have gone to heaven. Mom will say, "When you reach our age, honey, you won't think it is morbid to have days when you'd just like God to call you home."
How do adult children of aging parents deal with these changes? As is true of most things in life, there is a balance. Aging parents need encouragement to remain physically active, mentally stimulated, and engaged in social activities. However, they've earned the right to, sometimes, set a slower pace, succumb to the familiarity of routine, and choose the satisfaction of staying at home. How do we balance these two, seemingly, paradoxical lines of thought? We must be willing to accept our parents as they are, respect their growing limitations, and gently challenge them in ways that will stimulate new growth and encourage Mom and Dad to remain a vital part of our lives.
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