Recently, I observed an interaction between a son, Josh, and a healthcare provider caring for his dad, William. Josh said to the provider, who was recommending a treatment protocol to William, “My dad refuses and so I let him refuse.”
It moved me.
We work with many adult children of older parents who hire us not only to help their parents, but to help them, too, as they take on more responsibilities and decision-making surrounding care. The emotional toll can be significant.
In Josh’s case, I sensed a feeling of resignation in his choice of words and tone. We had a discussion afterwards and he contrasted caring for his parents with caring for his children:
With children, he explained, you look forward to them becoming more independent and your goal is to lay the foundation for them to make good decisions in their own best interest. With aging parents, you watch them become less independent and you have a much harder time influencing their decisions.
“It’s not easy to change a dad who has always minimized everything a doctor has ever told him and seldom executed any recommendations, especially those geared toward preventive healthcare!”
A Range of Emotions
The emotional toll caregiving has on individuals cannot be understated; it can put a strain on even the most positive and capable individuals, like Josh.
Over time, I’ve seen him get angry with his parents, saying such things as:
“I just don’t get why you won’t go for a walk every day, just a short walk. You know, if you lose your mobility, you lose everything!”
Some days, his emotional response is one of frustration:
“Okay, I know I have to respect your wishes and I will, but I completely disagree with you. Because you know what, I find myself resenting the position you are putting me in because when you fall, or the inevitable crisis happens, I’m the one that will have to care for you. I certainly will because I love you with all my heart. But knowing something may have been preventable will eat away at me!”
In the many years we have supported families, strong emotions are often on display.
Sometimes, there is resentment by the adult child who takes on primary responsibility for the care of a parent, and whose siblings either don’t offer to help or question their judgement.
In more positive sibling circumstances, there is respect and gratitude, when each takes on what they do best and what they can contribute. One may be able to provide skillful hands-on care, while another admits feeling embarrassed to physically assist and so instead manages the finances.
In other instances, there are adult children who have been estranged from their parents. They never imagined the day when they would be forced to take on responsibility for a parent’s declining health and do what needs to be done — but without feeling any sort of satisfaction from the experience.
Still others confide that their parents had always been there for them, and feel it is a privilege to offer care now that the relationship has flipped.
And, of course, there are often feelings of guilt, either for not having done enough, or for not having done “the right thing.” Josh practically forced his parents to move when their environment became an unsafe one for his father, something he feels his parents have never forgiven him for. “Maybe I should have waited for the crisis to happen — then maybe they wouldn’t hold the move against me still.”
Finally, there is often a generalized fear about what the future may hold. “Things might be fine for now, but what happens when my dad can’t manage the medications and I have to figure out how to make sure he is taking the right things at the right time? I know he feels he’s losing control and I don’t want to make that worse. But if I don’t act, I fear what will happen next!”
Some Practical Suggestions
If any of these emotions resonate, here are some suggestions for managing them…
- Have a conversation. If you can, try to talk about your feelings with your loved one. Josh and William always had a good relationship. As things were changing, they talked about feelings of loss and fear in the context of advice William had provided to help Josh raise his own kids. Honesty, without anger, goes a long way.
- Find support. You don’t have to go it alone — confide in a spouse, sibling or close friend. There is a good chance that they have experienced similar emotions and can fully empathize with what you are going through. Recognize, too, that there are things you can control and things you can’t.
- Share responsibilities. It’s hard to do everything. See if you can hand off some things to a sibling, grandchild, friend, members of the community, or even some paid assistance.
- Acknowledge your limitations. Perfection is not possible. For example, you may make a commitment to walk away when angry… but then not succeed. In those circumstances, step away, reflect and, when you can, apologize, explaining to both yourself and your parents that you may not have been at your best when you became frustrated and angry. Parents are pretty good about forgiving children — chances are, they’ve done it many times before while raising us. As Josh confided to me during an upbeat moment, “I’ve tried to do my best for my parents. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job over the years!”
The emotions described above are real and they need to be acknowledged. And they are ever-changing, often daily.
Try to remember that caring for others in our lives can be incredibly satisfying, extremely negative, and a little bit of everything in-between. All of this is to be expected.