Having lived with my parents for 23 years of my life, it was difficult for my mother to adjust to the empty nest after I launched out for further studies. A blessing in disguise came in the form of a dear cousin, who had lost his parents around the same time, after which his life meandered to touch ours in an unexpected way. Before I could recognise it, he had become an intricate part of the fabric of my family—taking care of my parents, while I lived far away.
Millions of parents and their adult children live in different homes, cities or even continents. Challenges present themselves in many forms—distance, decline, disease, crisis, and emptiness—coupled with our own turmoil and realisation about life and death. Stress, burn-out, and grief become part and parcel of life when you take up the role of caregiver for your parents. Taking a closer look and ensuring that you understand the meaning of this journey can prepare you for the ride.
It is difficult to accept that a parent or a loved one is ‘fading out’ with age. There is always the uneasy gut feeling and that natural recoil thinking about your parents’ dependencies and the advancing impairments with age/disease. Denial is the biggest setback and prevents you from recognising your own emotions. Allow the knowledge to sink in that your parents need your hand. Let the shock subside, and accept the challenge of handling an ailing parent—be it any physical illness or somewhat more debilitating threats such as dementia.
Browse the internet and find out resources about care delivery—the who, what, how and where of it all. Seek a confidante/professional to tackle your difficult emotions of denial, anger, sadness, despair or just plain burnout. It is normal for you to crumble at times and seek help from any quarters to deal with that. If you have siblings in the same boat as yours, connect with them and bond over the practical aspects of sharing care as well as the mutual catharsis.
An important aspect for you to consider is the degree of involvement required. Do your parents need to move in with you? Or would it serve best to let them to remain in their familiar environment, with a little care and presence of someone who would be available with their support? What is the nature of medical aid required and what would be the projected costs? What is their psychological status and how much do your parents need you around? How much can you afford in terms of your resources—finances as well as time and presence. Discuss with your spouse and family members and plan realistically. It is vital to understand that not every ageing parent will fit the same formula—what works for your spouse’s parents may not work for yours.
Make your parents’ home safer and more comfortable for them by bringing about changes in the structure of the house and its organisation.
- Ensure adequate security as well as ease of movement, and have things organised for easy reference. Install security systems in the house if your parents are living all by themselves.
- If required [in case any parent has memory loss or associated impairments] tag objects and places.
- Install gadgets which are easy-to-use and low maintenance—for example, an AC with self-cleaning function, heaters with thermostat or a phone/ computer your parent is most comfortable handling. Parents may not be comfortable using the latest gadgets, so you may want to look for single-function devices for their ease of understanding, rather than multi-function tech-savvy gadgets.
- Keep the home clutter-free and remove potential sources of danger, such as steps where your mother may be prone to accidental falls, or any plugs/ sockets that need repair.
- A very pertinent but oft-ignored area is the restroom—you may have to think of structural changes to make it elderly-friendly. If your parents are living with you, think about how you could rope in your family members’ help to ensure that each one can participate in their own little way to pitch in and attend to their needs.
Source and write out all possible resources that could come in handy—from hospitals, doctors, nurses to friends, relatives, NGOs and grocery stores that do home delivery. Spend time teaching your parents how to use a mobile or a computer or whatever new gadget you have installed. If you lack the patience, call a neighbour’s child who will enthusiastically play teacher with your parent and get the job done! Count on your neighbours, friends and relatives—reach out and let them know all possible resources you have listed out and prepare them with a plan for any sort of emergencies. Give them all your contact details and cultivate your relationship with these Samaritans—they will pitch in when you can’t.
If you are hiring a care nurse, make sure you have trained the professional regarding your parents’ likes and dislikes and set up a rapport with them—imagine how you’d have felt had your parents left you with a nanny without initially working on building your rapport.
Connect with elderly groups in your city—Senior Citizen forums operated by the government or municipalities also serve as very useful resources for distance-caring of elderly parents.
Sometimes an unexpected clique develops between your parents and your kids—grandparents can be entrusted with the care of your kids while you are out managing work and home. And vice versa.
There are mixed views about institutionalising an ageing parent. Contrary to popular belief, it may sometimes be the right thing to do, given the practical constraints of adult children today. Institutionalisation may not always signify cruelty and negligence towards ageing parents. What defines the nobility is the intention and purpose. Consider institutionalisation only if you are sure that your parent will be better off living with like-minded individuals in a secured, warm home for ageing than either living with you or alone. Visit them or connect with them as frequently as possible, just as you would with a child who’s staying in a boarding school.
Hold gatherings and encourage your parents to stay in touch with friends and relatives. Not only does this deal with their emptiness and loneliness; but also assures that all your acquaintances are on the same page as you regarding the health status of your parents.
Keep it light
Humour is perhaps the best way to diffuse tensions. Try to fuse humour to vent out irritability and frustration as well as make light of such situations where your parents may be feeling guilty about being a burden. As Martha Beck says, “If you can’t train your elder to go toward the light, you can make light of the situation”.
Face the eventuality
Ageing parents force you to face the reality of life—ageing, helplessness, dependence and eventually death—something that we keep denying most of our lives. When you watch your parents slowly moving into the dusky zone, brace yourself up to accept the eventuality of life.
This was first published in the September 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.