A few years ago, I joined the ranks of people, in their 40's and 50's who are now finding themselves having to care for their elderly parents. Like a lot of my peers, this wasn't something that I signed up for. My parents certainly never mentioned that my sisters and I would be expected to get involved in their lives. But when my father, who was the main decision maker in the home, had a debilitating stroke, it left my mother in a circumstance where she had to start relying on us for support and advice.
While we haven't yet been thrown full throttle into their care, we're on a massive learning curve of saying good-bye to our traditional roles as the daughters that we once were and hello to ensuring our folks will be okay.
A while back I spoke with Lori La Bey who is the founder of Alzheimer's Speaks - an amazing organization that serves as a resource for people living with Alzheimers and dementia related illnesses, especially caregivers. Lori came into the role through her late mother Dorothy who had Alzheimers for many years. Because my dad is in early stages of dementia and this is presenting a lot of challenges for my mother, Lori was able to provide some insight and advice on how to prepare ourselves for the years ahead. Here are some of the things that really stood out and actually transcend to other aspects of our lives.
1. We must let go of perfection.
For children of aging parents, that perfection might come in the way of wanting family dinners and traditions to be the same. It might mean easing up in trying to keep life "as it was" for our parents. I know that this one is a big one as so many of us want to cling to a past that didn't involve pills, wheelchairs, diapers and more. One of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves is to throw away the guilt and just do the best we can. It frees us up to enjoy our parent rather than fighting for an unrealistic image.
2. Appreciate the moment.
Before her mom passed away, Lori's mother didn't recognize her and she couldn't be hugged anymore. For those of us who are used to getting hugs and affection from our parents, this would feel devastating. But Lori learned (and then shared with her community) that you can find affection from your parents that is just as fulfilling from what you knew as a child, in different ways. She would see it in a glint in her mother's eye or in a moment when she knew her mom was resting comfortably. A great learning for us as we go down the unknown road of aging with our parents is to look for the subtle expressions of peace, comfort and love.
3. Safe and well check
Sometimes things are not well at all for my parents and on the phone, without a visual and before my sisters and I are able to get to them, things can really get distorted. We tend to fear the worst. But one thing that I'm finding, and this is also courtesy of Lori and that is, in a situation, where your parents are having a tough time, to detach for a moment and observe. Are they safe? Are they well? Just the most basic questions, questions that a nurse might ask if they were popping into their room. I find that when I do a "safe and well" check on my parents, especially during times of their emotional distress, I can see that yes, things are okay. They're in a clean environment, they have food in the kitchen, they are comfortable.
Ensuring our parents are safe and well is a work in progress. Most of us are only now starting to carve out rules and ways of getting through this time in a way that also supports our own mental and physical health. Moving through it with the basics of ensuring things are safe and doing it in a way that makes the most of a glint in the eye seems like very good places to begin.
Have you begun the journey into caring for your elderly parents? What other things should we know about this changing lifestyle? Post your comment below.
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