Caring for Aged Parents
“I WAS up day and night, but I still felt that it was a privilege.” That was how one woman described caring for her elderly mother. For this woman, and many others, caring for aging parents is a positive experience.
It is also becoming a more common experience. The fastest growing age group in the United States is said to be the 75-plus category. In 1900, fewer than one million Americans were 75 or older. By 1980 almost ten million were over 75. Older people are living longer, and about a third of those 85 or older need regular assistance.
While caregiving can be a rewarding experience, it is not without stress. If one or both of your parents are aged and in need of your care, you may find certain aspects difficult. Just watching them decline in health surely causes you pain. And if you receive little or no help from other family members, then you are left with the bulk of the caregiving.
You may also discover that no matter how old you are, you never feel grown-up around your parents. Their tendency may be to treat you like a child, and your tendency may be to respond like one. Lack of emotional support from friends can add a stressful element to your caregiving.
Nevertheless, the challenges of caregiving need not interfere with your maintaining a close relationship with your parents. The Scriptures clearly direct adults “to practice godly devotion in their own household and to keep paying a due compensation to their parents and grandparents, for this is acceptable in God’s sight.” On the other hand, he that “chases a mother away is a son acting shamefully and disgracefully.”—1 Timothy 5:4; Proverbs 19:26.
Godly devotion expressed through caregiving can be an enriching experience. But first, you must know what your parents actually need from you in the way of help. The following articles may assist you in identifying and meeting those needs. And while these articles focus on what can be done in the home, it is understood that in some cases, because of very poor health or advanced age, a parent may require professional help, such as that found in a nursing home.
Assessing Your Parents’ Needs
TO BE of true help to your aging parents, you must learn what their needs and preferences are. Otherwise you may—with good intentions—extend provisions and services that your parents do not need and do not want, though they may be reluctant to tell you that. Then your relationship, based on misunderstandings, would be unnecessarily stressful not only for you but for your parents as well.
What Do They Really Want?
Believing that it will someday become necessary to move her parents in with her, a woman arranges for that move right away. Later she discovers that her parents are quite capable of living in their own home—and would be happier that way!
Having brought his parents in to live with him, a son says: “You are not going to pay money to live in my house! Not after all you’ve done for me!” However, this makes his parents feel overly dependent. Eventually they tell him that they would prefer the dignity of contributing in some way.
A family provides every minor service for their aging parents to ensure that they are comfortable and not burdened with physical exertion. Later they discover that their parents want to do more for themselves.
In each of the above examples, the services performed were both unneeded and unwanted by the parents. This can easily happen if a well-meaning son or daughter is motivated by an exaggerated sense of duty or if there is a lack of understanding as to the parents’ actual needs. Think of the unnecessary stress this produces for all concerned. The solution, of course, is to obtain an assessment of your parents’ actual needs and wants.
Do your parents really need to move into your home at this point? Do they even want to? It may surprise you to learn that some older persons desire to live as independently as possible. For fear of sounding unappreciative, they may hesitate to express to their children that they would prefer to live by themselves in their own home, despite some inconveniences. They may love their children and long to spend time with them. But be dependent on their children? No, they may prefer to do things for themselves.
Perhaps someday it will be necessary to move your parents into your home. However, if that time has not yet arrived, and if they honestly prefer to live by themselves, why refuse them these years of independence? Would some home adjustments or a regularly scheduled phone call or visit enable them to continue living in their own home? They may feel happier in their own home, making their own daily decisions.
One caregiver explained her own haste in taking her mother in: “When my dad died, we took my mother in, feeling sorry for her. As it turned out, she lived for 22 more years. Instead of selling her house, she could have continued living in it. Never be hasty in deciding what steps should be taken. A decision like that, once made, is hard to reverse.”—Compare Matthew 6:34.
‘But,’ you may object, ‘what if something happened to one of my parents while living in their own home? If Mom or Dad fell and got hurt, I’d never forgive myself!’ This is a valid concern, especially if your parents’ strength or health has declined to the point that there is real danger of an accident. If that is not the case, though, ask yourself whether your concern is for your parents or for yourself, that is, to protect yourself from inappropriate guilt.
Consider too the possibility that your parents would be better off in their own home. In the book You and Your Aging Parents, Edith M. Stern and Dr. Mabel Ross state: “Studies have shown that old folks stay younger and more truly alive in their own homes than elsewhere. In short, many misguided attempts to make declining years easy succeed only in making the decline more rapid.” So, help your parents live as independently as possible, while providing the care and services that they actually need. You should also make a periodic reassessment and readjust as your parents’ needs increase or even decrease.
Given your parents’ health and circumstances, it may be that bringing them into your home is the best option after all. If so, be sensitive to the possibility that they prefer to do as much for themselves as possible. Like people of any age, they likely wish to have their own identity, their own schedule of activities, and their own set of friends. This can be healthy. While it will be enjoyable to do some things together as an extended family, it may be good for you to reserve some activities for just your immediate family and to allow your parents their own activities as well. One caregiver wisely pointed out: “Make sure your parents have familiar pieces of furniture and photographs that are special to them.”
In endeavoring to discern your parents’ real needs, talk to them. Listen to their concerns and be sensitive to what they may be trying to tell you. Explain to them what you can and cannot do for them so that they will not be hurt by false expectations. “Have a clear understanding as to what is to be expected from all in the family,” recommended one caregiver. “Have frequent discussions to avoid hard feelings and built-up resentments.” If you make any long-term promises (“I’ll call you every Monday afternoon”; “I’ll take you out every weekend”), you may want to make it clear that you would like to try it for a certain period of time and see how it works. That way, if it proves to be impractical, the door is already open for reassessment.
None of the above should be taken as reasons to deprive one’s parents of the honor and assistance due them. The Creator’s position on the subject is explicit. Adult children owe their parents respect, care, and support. Jesus condemned the self-righteous Pharisees for twisting scriptures to excuse the neglect of parents. The graphic words at Proverbs 30:17 reveal the disgust that God feels toward those who disrespect their parents: “The eye that holds a father in derision and that despises obedience to a mother—the ravens of the torrent valley will pick it out and the sons of the eagle will eat it up.”—See Mark 7:9-13; 1 Timothy 5:4, 8.
As you give needed assistance to your parents, you may also face new pressures. How can you cope with these? The next article will offer some suggestions.
[Pictures on page 5]
A parent may enjoy independent activities with friends as well as with family
Caregiving—Coping With Day-to-Day Pressures
IF CAREGIVING causes you some pressures, especially ones you had not anticipated, you may be inclined to feel guilty. You might wonder: ‘Is there something wrong in my relationship with my parents? Don’t adults in many cultures live happily with their parents all their lives?’
Well, your situation may be different. Your parents may have moved into your home after 20, 30, 40, or more years of their living apart from you. This means that you and your parents formed life-styles and habits independently of one another for the greater part of your lives. In the course of several decades, those life-styles and habits may have become very different. But now, as a caregiver, you are confronted with the need to blend your life harmoniously with those in your care. This can be more difficult than if you had been living together all along.
Too, some parents may be quite ill or in other ways need more special care. Although, commendably, you may be supplying what is required and see no present need to put your parents in a nursing home, this situation understandably puts day-to-day pressures on all of you. Caring for your parents is natural. Growing old and getting sick is not. The Creator never purposed that people lose their strength and health with age. Therefore, do not think there is something wrong with you because the situation requires more, emotionally and physically, than you had foreseen.—Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 90:10.
Pressures related to caregiving do not necessarily reflect a poor relationship between you and your parents. Especially if you enjoyed a good relationship with them before they needed your help, it is likely that any difficulties you experience are the result of the challenges that caregiving can present. How can you effectively deal with the day-to-day pressures?
Dealing With Guilt Feelings
Even persons who are doing all they can and should for their parents sometimes feel guilty about not doing more. Inappropriate guilt, however, can be a problem. You can find yourself making decisions that are designed to relieve your guilt but are not necessarily in the best interests of you or your parents. For example, what would happen if, to alleviate her feelings of inappropriate guilt, a woman became absorbed in caregiving to the neglect of her own husband and children? She, her husband, and her children would suffer the consequences. So do not let inappropriate guilt control your life.
Do you sometimes feel guilty because it seems that you can never do enough for your parents? It is possible, then, that your parents’ needs exceed what you are able to provide. The situation may be such that, no matter what you do, there is always more that could be done. Furthermore, if you view caregiving as a means of repaying your parents for all that they did in your behalf while you were growing up in their care, you will always feel guilty, because you simply cannot fully repay them.
The book You and Your Aging Parents points out the need to decide how much you will do for your parents. It says: “You will save yourself a great deal of wear and tear if you base [your decisions] primarily not on what you would like to do or even what you should do, but what you can do.”
Yes, determine realistically what you can expect of yourself. It might help if you enlist the aid of a trusted friend who knows your abilities, your limitations, and your family situation. Can you take your parents into your home? Do you have sufficient space? Will they agree to move in? If your parents do not live with you, how often can you visit them, and when? If you do what you can, there is no need to feel guilty. If you feel guilty anyway, recognize the feeling as inappropriate and refuse to let it govern your decisions.
Share the Load
The Bible book of Ecclesiastes points out how unhealthy it is to be “wicked overmuch” or “righteous overmuch” and that being righteous overmuch can “cause desolation to yourself.” (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18) This can happen if you are trying to accomplish more than you want to do, can do, and even should do.
If you already had a full schedule before starting to care for your parents, you must eliminate some other activities or get help. Yet, many who need help hesitate to ask. They may feel too timid or claim that others are unwilling to assist. However, you do yourself and everyone around you a disservice if you wear yourself down. In her book on caregiving, author E. Jane Mall calls such overfunctioning the “martyr syndrome.” She advises: “You should have a priority calendar, and three of your priorities should be time with your [spouse], time with your children and friends, and time for yourself.”
Yes, you may need to share the load. So where can you go for help? Family, friends, neighbors, and professionals can be of assistance. But you have to ask for the help. And you must ask directly. Hints don’t always work. You may be surprised who and how many are willing to assist if you make your needs clearly known, your requests definite. For example, you might ask someone to help you clean the house. If that would give you some needed relief, then this is no time to insist on cleaning the house yourself because ‘nobody else will do it right.’
If you have brothers or sisters, they also share the responsibility of caring for their parents. Perhaps you have done all or most of the caregiving up to now, believing that your brothers and sisters are unable or unwilling. However, have you directly requested their assistance? Some people will respond positively—if it is made clear to them that help is needed.
Some monopolize the care of a parent in an attempt to gain or to maintain parental approval. Or they may gain a feeling of piety by taking on the whole job themselves. They may complain that others will not assist with the caregiving, but they may also send out signals to show that they prefer it that way. This can be a form of being righteous overmuch. But why bring unnecessary hardships on yourself? If help is available, ask for it, and use it.
A word of caution: Do not expect that your brothers and sisters will share the responsibilities equally with you. While at times it may be possible for them to do so, often their own circumstances make that difficult, if not impossible. In many cases it is more practical for one family member to be the primary caregiver, while other family members, particularly brothers and sisters, contribute financially and by phoning, visiting, or occasionally taking their parents home or on weekend trips.
Living in close quarters can give rise to small irritations. Habits that you would easily excuse in a friend may seem intolerable in a close family member.
Additionally, your parent may say something like, ‘I wish you could spend more time with me, but I know you’re too busy for that.’ The message may hide the belief that you really don’t care enough about your parent. You could respond to such a statement with annoyance. Rather than becoming annoyed, would it not be better to address your parent’s real underlying concern, that of spending more time with you? Even if you cannot grant the request, kindly explaining matters will yield better results than a hurtful reply.—Proverbs 12:18.
Earnest effort at cultivating the qualities encouraged in the Bible will enable you to remain kind but firm when necessary. The Bible book of Colossians realistically acknowledges that we sometimes have “cause for complaint against another.” It directs us to “continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely.” It also exhorts us to clothe ourselves with “the tender affections of compassion, kindness, lowliness of mind, mildness, and long-suffering.” (Colossians 3:12-14) Certainly such qualities will go a long way to minimize the irritations of close living.
Even then if you occasionally slip, lose patience, and say something you wish you hadn’t, “let the sun not set with you in a provoked state.” Apologize quickly, and put the matter behind you. Do not allow it to become another source of guilt feelings.—Ephesians 4:26, 27.
If you and your parents live in the same home, you may find privacy difficult. Yet, you and your parents need a measure of it. You might talk this problem over with them and arrive at an understanding that certain times and places are private for you or your immediate family. For instance, for some families, but not all, a closed door with a do-not-disturb sign might be mutually understood as indicating a private area or time for the person inside.
If the room does not have a door, a portable screen or a partition could serve the same purpose. A tactful reminder might be in order if needed privacy is unexpectedly interrupted. The point is, one another’s need for privacy should be respected by all in the family.
Remember that although any decline in your parents’ health causes you pain, our Creator, Jehovah, wants us to experience a measure of joy even when we undergo trialsome circumstances. This work may also help you draw closer to Jehovah as you prayerfully lean on him. One caregiver expressed it this way: “I was always close to Jehovah, but caregiving taught me total reliance on him. It was like the difference between a long-distance phone call and having the person there with you. Jehovah was right there with me.”