"I don't want to eat that." "I can do it myself." "I don't want to go to the doctor." "I'm not ready to go to bed yet." "I want to go with you." "I want the car and the keys back."
Sound familiar? If you're a parent, you've probably heard similar statements/complaints from your kids countless times. But, did you ever imagine that one day you might have to field the same sort of comments from your aging parents? The parents who cared for and raised you, taught you to follow the rules, nurtured you through the good times and the bad? Have you now become a member of the "sandwich generation" with both your children and your parents pressing to attend to their needs? Suddenly you've become a caregiver not only for your kids but for your parents as well.
Being a caregiver of aging parents is a job most of us don't anticipate or prepare for and can swamp anyone with an array of emotions: fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, sadness, loss, frustration. If the family relationship was a rough one to begin with, the caregiver may resent having responsibility for a parent who wasn't there for him/her in the past. Also, adult siblings may find themselves at loggerheads about who does more or who is not available to do his/her part in caring for the parent(s). The sibling living close to the parent(s) may feel overwhelmed with responsibility while the sibling living far away may be guilt riddled about not being available enough.
Fortunately, being a caregiver can have a positive side as well. There is the opportunity to share intimacies with that parent: thoughts and feelings, life stories, hopes and dreams, quiet appreciation and tenderness.
Sally Abrahms wrote in the November issue of the "Your World" column of AARP Magazine that " caregivers confront three distinct and difficult experiences" when caring for an aging parent: grief, guilt and exhaustion.
How can a caregiver experience grief when the parent is still alive? Grief is the result of losses, and as the parent's abilities deteriorate both the parent and the adult child experience the loss of "what used to be or might have been." The parent can no longer be the supporter and, instead, is now the one who needs to be supported. As children, we go to our parents for advice and encouragement, but the parent may not have the capacity to provide this anymore. As memory issues or dementia become more apparent, the parent's personality may change radically and seem no longer to be the person we've known all our life.
We begin to grieve those losses while we anticipate the final loss. This, the "anticipatory grief" phase, is a stage that seems to go on and on and it is difficult to come to grips with.
Some tools that may help you cope with the feelings of grief include: focusing on what you can do with your loved one vs. what you can't do. Help them make an audio or video tape of their life recollections and experiences, sing their favorite songs with them, ask them to reminisce, put family pictures in an album with special captions and thoughts. Acknowledge your own thoughts/feelings with your support group (spouse, siblings, friends, church family, formal support group). Say whatever you have needed to say to your parent(s) and let go of past resentments.
Do we ever feel we've done enough? We feel guilty that we aren't there for our parents and then feel guilty that we're disregarding our own family or guilty that our siblings have the majority of the responsibility for taking care of our parent(s) or guilty that our lives go on. We feel guilty when we wish that this situation was just over and done with or guilty that we didn't get the folks to the right doctor or guilty that we didn't take them on vacation with us, and so on. We can become a train wreck of guilt.
The fact is: we can only do so much. Caregiving is not a role we prepare for, and, fortunately, something we won't have to cope with very often in our life. But it is hard to know what to do. Accept that it's normal to feel guilty, and verbalize your guilt. Talk with others who are in the same boat so you come to accept the fact that you are not alone.
Get support! Contact friends, neighbors, pastors, Office for the Aging, volunteer organizations, service organizations, Uncle Joe in California.
Ask for help with meals, respite care, doing laundry, writing out bills, paying for transportation to an appointment and so on. Don't go through this alone. There are many out there who will help if they're asked. Absolutely no one can provide 24-hour care themselves. When it comes to that, you have to get some help.
If you're a caregiver and would like to find someone else who understands what you're going through, you are invited to attend the Caregivers' Support Group facilitated by Family Service of Chautauqua Region. Meetings are held on the fourth Tuesday of each month at the United Methodist Church on Buffalo Street in Jamestown from 12:15-1:30 p.m. in Room 117. We would love to be available for you.