I had begun writing this piece before COVID. I recently unearthed it in my “unfinished — to be used at another time” file. Now, we are in the midst of holidays that look nothing like the holidays we envisioned when I first thought about this piece. I wanted to write about ways we can thoughtfully and compassionately care for our aging parents at a time when families travel to be together, in person. But we are all in a different place now. The upending impact of COVID not only keeps us apart but increases the concern we have for the well-being of our older parents, relatives, colleagues and friends.
Many of us have lost family members and friends to this virus. We are experiencing profound loss as we mourn their absence at the holiday table (which for many of us is a much smaller table). In addition, we may be experiencing grief and guilt because we weren’t physically able to be with them to help tend to their needs while they were ill. For all of us whose loved ones have survived the pandemic, there may even be a lingering feeling of not having done enough to comfort them. With all that said, it is time to rise up, it’s time to look within and creatively explore the ways in which we can support the older people who are in our lives – even if a vaccine appears to be on the not-too-distant horizon.
Their Well-Being is Part of Our Consciousness
As we age, so do our parents. If they are in poor health, we are concerned about them. Even in good health, we are concerned because COVID has taught us that life is, indeed, fluid. We wonder what will happen if their physical, emotional, or mental health declines. How will they fare? How will we handle it? Whether we live in the same town as our parents or across the country, their well-being is part of our consciousness. The way in which we can care for our aging parents is to find and adopt realistic solutions that address their well-being, your well-being, and the relationship you share with them.
Your Role is Changing
Coming to terms with your parents aging (and your role in it) is a process. Our parents do not become our children, although in some cases, their behaviors may seem childlike. Our parents are still our parents and deserve respectful and compassionate attention, and caregiving. Developing the patience and empathy that is critical to caregiving takes practice. We can begin by exploring and coming to terms with the relationship we have with them. Have we forgiven them for the wrongs done to us? Have we attempted to understand who they are (were) and why they behaved in the ways they did? Are we willing to assist them through this next and final stage of their lives in a kind and responsible way? COVID has heightened the need to have that conversation with them.
It is essential to know as much as we can about them and their wishes should they become sick or just because it is good to know – things like what their routines are, who their friends are, who comprises their medical team, what their strengths and vulnerabilities are, how and where they need assistance, and so on. These things can become more complex as they get older. Try to understand what is reasonable behavior for you and for them, and what you can do to help your parents feel as connected and as safe as possible.
This is a Time of Adaptation
You may need to adapt to you parent’s pace which may change when it comes to walking, talking, listening, and thinking. This is the time to intentionally develop empathy and compassion. Try to understand and feel what it is like to be in your parent’s situation. What would you like and need if you were where they are? Ask yourself how your parent’s “new” pace affects you. If you are only interested in “getting the job done” you will be missing an invaluable opportunity to learn about yourself and your parents, and to grow the relationship.
We Need to Care for Our Parents…and Ourselves
The sandwich generation is wedged within responsibilities and commitments for work, children, partners, friends, communities, parents, and in many families, other aging relatives or friends. In addition, many of us are overseeing our children’s online education, negotiating virtual work calls, or dealing with financial issues related to the pandemic. Sometimes, our responsibilities and concerns seem endless.
We can’t ignore the need to maintain our own well-being. We need to adopt the methods needed to maintain our own physical, emotional, and mental well-being, and a sense of humor. Even though we may not think of ourselves as caregivers, we assume that role and therefore, need care ourselves.
Nevertheless, we can’t forget our parents. Think about the progressive nature of aging and determine with your loved one what you think you and your parents will need. Among the basic components of caring for aging parents are support networks, support services, a team to rely on, and respite care. Enlisting friends, family, a community, a counselor, or a spiritual guide may not only help your parents, but you, as well.
Of course, COVID creates obstacles to parental access, at least in person. And since loneliness and isolation can negatively affect emotional and mental well-being, think about helping our aging parents maintain contact with family members (nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren, friends) through Zoom calls, phone calls at a specific time each week with several different people, or even drive-by’s. Consider enrolling your parents in an online class, book club, prayer group or a spiritual group. Each is a wonderful connector for those who are home alone.
Coming to Terms with an Aging Parent Takes Time
We may not yet feel we are ready to see our parents as limited or frail or without the fire they once had. We may get angry at their inability to do or remember what they once were capable of. We can try to be kind to ourselves as we offer kindness to our aging parents. In the process we can talk about what is scary and what is lovely so we can develop resilience and balance for the unexpected challenges that we will face together.