Advice for this sad but meaningful time
Some things you just never forget. For me, one of those things was about eight months ago. I was sitting on the beach, looking out over Lake Michigan and the sunset, thinking about how great life was. The kids were great, my boyfriend was great, my job was great, my family was great. Everything was great.
It was at that moment I got a text from my sister: “Dad’s in the hospital. He fell and broke his hip.” A second text: “He’s going to be fine.”
I immediately thought, No, he wouldn’t be fine and that my parents’ lives had just drastically changed. I had this pit in my stomach, and it felt awful because I realized things were about to decline.
Over the next seven months, I watched both my mom and dad go from completely independent, content, and happy to two people I barely recognized. My dad became weak, frail, tired, quiet, and very thin. My mom, who became his caregiver, not only was physically exhausted but also became full of anxiety, sadness, and fear.
There is nothing worse than seeing your aging parents transform before your eyes and feeling helpless to control the horrifying changes that are happening.
It is one of the hardest things I’ve gone through in my life. That said, there were also some beautiful, wonderful moments that occurred during this difficult time.
Another very difficult aspect of the situation for me was the fact that I am a single parent. I say that for a couple reasons: First, I think my dad knew he was declining and felt somewhat nervous that his daughter was a single mom. There was no need for him to feel that way, in my opinion, because I am doing just fine. That said, my dad (who has since passed away) was old-school, and he would have felt better knowing his daughter was married. Second, having aging parents and being a single mom was difficult because it was hard for me to get away to visit them.
Here are some tips for how to deal with your parents during this difficult time—things I did that I think helped, and things I said and did that I would not recommend—either because they were unproductive or my parents didn’t respond well to them:
1. Involve them. When talking to your parents about getting a caregiver or moving into an independent or assisted-living facility, make them part of the process. Don’t make them feel like they are being forced into it. Say things such as, “I think we all know it is difficult for you to stay in the house without having someone come in and help you,” or “This is ultimately your decision, but we (your kids) feel this is what is best for you. Let’s come up with a plan together to make adjustments so that you can stay in the house. What do we need to do to make that happen? What do you need help with?” and go from there. Don’t say, “You need help, and we are getting you a caregiver starting Monday.” Using that type of tone will make them defensive and angry and not open to the idea.
2. Pick your battles. Don’t turn the conversation into an argument, and try not be confrontational. It helps to agree with them on certain things.
3. Don’t pity them. Don’t say “I feel so bad for you.” Instead, say “I’m sure this is very difficult for you.”
4. Support the caregiver. Suggest and find a support group for the caregiver, whether that is your mom or your dad. I remember my mom saying to me, “No one understands how I feel.” The fact is that there are countless men and women who are going through this situation (being a caregiver for a spouse), and they do understand. Hearing their stories will help your mom or dad.
5. Share your memories. Sit with your parents and reminisce about old times. Tell them how much you enjoyed parts of your childhood. Tell them what they did that helped you in life. Talk about the fun times. Describe memories in detail. And tell them they did a really good job.
6. Talk to your parents about your children. Give details about what they are doing. Have your kids visit or call your parents often, even if it’s just for a couple minutes. Seeing your kids’ faces and hearing their voices goes a long way.
7. Show your parents photos. This is the time to whip out scrapbooks and photo albums and say “Remember this?”
8. Use music to help them relax. Play soothing music that your parents love, such as Frank Sinatra or Andrea Bocelli.
9. Encourage your parents to stay as active as possible. Take them out. Encourage them to keep their routine as “normal” as possible. Engage in activities that include going to restaurants, senior-center activities, and lectures, and for walks.
10. Make sure they are eating healthy food. Especially the caregiver. Don’t ask if you can bring your mom or dad lunch, just bring it. Stock their home with superfoods and healthy snacks.
11. Get them connected with religion. Call your rabbi or priest if you think it will make your parents feel better to talk with him or her.
12. Hire someone to help them pay bills. Geriatric care managers have contact names of people who do this.
13. Encourage restorative self-care. Suggest that the caregiver get massages or start doing yoga/meditation and engage in other stress-relieving activities.
14. Be honest if professional help is needed. The caregiver needs sleep. If he or she resists getting a professional caregiver to take over, be persistent. You almost have to insist. It might be one of the most difficult aspects of the aging process.
15. Tell them they don’t need to worry about you. Tell your parents over and over again how fine you are, how you’ve got this single-mom thing down, and how you are happy and at peace. Even if things are a little rough, resist telling them anything that might make them feel uneasy about your situation.
Watching parents age sort of forces a person to grow up—fast. It isn’t easy, and there are still times I want to call my mom (who is very healthy but nonetheless older) and cry and complain, but I can’t. My big-girl pants are on, and if I need some cheering up, I call my sisters or my girlfriends—a much smarter choice.
When parents get older and/or become ill, it is perhaps one of the saddest times in a person’s life. The only thing you can truly control is helping your parents by getting them help and being there for them by showing them love and gratitude, and sharing funny and important or meaningful memories with them.
Try to remember that aging and dying are part of life, and as parents age and pass away, cherishing sacred memories is what keeps us going and makes us realize we can and should go on living. That’s what our parents want for us.
Jackie Pilossoph, ESME’s Divorce Resource Guide, is the creator of Divorced Girl Smiling, a website that helps men and women facing divorce. She is also a weekly Huffington Post divorce blogger; the writer of a weekly column, “Love Essentially,” for the Chicago Tribune’s Pioneer Press; and a freelance corporate and business content writer. Pilossoph holds a master’s degree in journalism. She lives in Chicago with her two children. Oh, and she’s divorced.