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How to Care for Your Aging Parents Even If They Didn't Take Good Care of You

Ms. Meyers grew up with an emotionally absent mother and, along with her siblings, has been caring for that parent for the past 20 years.

Adult children make a big mistake when trying to parent their parents.

Adult children make a big mistake when trying to parent their parents.

Caretaking Our Parents

As people live longer, more adult children now find themselves caring for their aging parents.

Not surprisingly, many feel ill-equipped for the task.This dramatic role reversal of the parent-child relationship proves to be challenging for them as they discover our society offers few resources and little support for folks in their situation. Because of this, it can be needlessly frustrating, isolating, and sad for both the caretaker and the senior.

Moreover, the stress of looking after aging parents gets magnified when the caretakers had unhappy childhoods.

If they felt unloved by their moms and dads while growing up—neglected, abused, misunderstood, or unwanted—they’ll have an even heavier burden. They’ll need to acknowledge their pain, admit their ambivalence about taking care of their parents, and treat themselves tenderly.

They’ll need to accept that they may not be psychologically equipped for the job and instead hire a professional. They may need to set strict limits so they don’t feel like the destructive patterns of the past are repeating themselves. This may require them to visit Mom and Dad only once a week or phone just once a day.

Whether they had a loving relationship with their parents or a difficult one, caregivers need to have patience, compassion, and a good sense of humor.They must pace themselves, ask for help, stick up for their own needs, and say “no” when necessary.

If they’re part of the so-called “sandwich generation,” simultaneously caring for kids and elderly parents, they must prioritize their immediate family ahead of Mom and Dad.

Advice for Taking Care of Aging Parents

1. Acknowledge any resentment

2. Understand their memories

3. Practice compassionate listening

4. Don't try to parent them

5. Encourage their religious activities

1. Acknowledge Any Resentment

After her 78-year-old mother had a stroke, Heather moved in to care for her.

While doing so, she was haunted by memories from childhood when her mom fell in love with a new man, divorced her father, and left the family. While mother and daughter eventually reunited, Heather never dealt with the heartache it caused.

When looking after her mom, she tried to numb her feelings about that painful period. She ate too much, consumed too much alcohol, and spent too much time using technology. While mindlessly scrolling on Facebook for hours at a time, she’d feel nothing at all.

Heather would have benefited greatly from reciting the mantra: You can’t heal what you don’t feel.

When caring for our elderly parents, it’s critical to acknowledge any anguish that they caused us as kids. This doesn’t mean confronting them or opening up old wounds. That will only make them defensive, harm the relationship, and resolve nothing.

It does mean, though, talking to a friend, a family member, or a therapist. It means writing about your feelings in a journal. It means accepting the hurt you experienced as a child and refusing to let it continue. It means looking after yourself: eating right, exercising, meditating, spending time in nature, pursuing your hobbies, and feeling all your feelings rather than deadening them.

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In this video, Iyanla Vanzant explains why it's essential to prioritize ourselves, especially those in a caregiving role.

2. Understand Their Memories

After teaching second grade all week and caring for her own two kids, Jill helps her 83-year-old mother each Saturday.

She cleans her house, takes her grocery shopping, and does her laundry. All the while, her mom reminisces about days long gone when Jill and her siblings were little. She even has vivid recollections of her own childhood. Jill, though, gets frustrated that her mom is so focused on the past. She wishes she’d ask about her grandkids and listen to stories about her job.

When Jill mentions this to her mom’s doctor in private, she’s reassured by what he says. He explains older folks can have much better recall for events in the distant past than those in recent times. Their short-term memories are weak but their long-term memories are strong.

This is magnified even more for those who are experiencing the early stages of dementia. According to Professor John C. Morris, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in St. Louis, Alzheimer's disease impacts recent memories first while older ones are much more resistant. He states: “The loss of recent events is often one of the first, if not the first, symptom of the disease.”

With this newfound knowledge, Jill has more patience and understanding when spending time with her mom. She’s no longer hurt when her mom lives in the past instead of the present. Today, she enjoys it when her mom walks down memory lane. She understands now and is no longer frustrated by it.

3. Practice Compassionate Listening

When Derek becomes his father’s caretaker, he’s thrilled to finally share his life with his dad.

His father had been a workaholic when he was a boy so they never spent much time together. Now Derek is a high-profile lawyer at one of the top law firms in town. He’s happily married with two sons who play baseball and soccer, and he can’t wait to tell his dad all about them.

Yet, whenever Derek talks about his job and the happenings in his family, his father seems bored and interrupts with mundane stories about his day. He wants to talk about what he heard discussed on the morning news, what he prepared himself for lunch, and what his neighbor said about the community’s annual rummage sale.

Although heartbroken at first, Derek soon realizes that his dad is the same man he’s always been—rather self-absorbed—and aging hasn’t changed him one bit.

Rather than trying to make him different (a futile endeavor, for sure), Derek wisely decides to accept his father “as is.” Instead, he decides to focus on what he can control—himself—and chooses to alter his own expectations and behaviors. Because his dad is alone most of the week, Derek appreciates that he has a tremendous need to talk about his activities, no matter how ordinary they are.

Derek begins to practice what the Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls “compassionate listening.”

This powerful tool involves casting aside one’s ego, being fully present, and letting one’s elderly parents talk about whatever is on their minds. It’s a completely selfless act and the best gift in the world to give seniors.

As their parents age, experience health problems, and face death, their adult children can help them by practicing compassionate listening.

4. Don’t Try to Parent Them

A common mistake caretakers make is trying to parent their own parents.

When Rachael starts looking after her 72-year-old mom, for example, she immediately becomes concerned about her diet and weight. She decides to teach her mom better eating habits, overhaul her pantry and refrigerator, and establish a daily exercise routine for her.

Within a matter of weeks, the mother-daughter relationship has deteriorated to the point where they’re barely speaking.

Although her intentions are good, Rachael doesn’t appreciate how hurtful her actions are. After all, her mother has long seen her role as being the nurturer, advisor, and teacher in their relationship. Just because she’s older now doesn’t mean she wants her status as an authority figure and role model to be stripped away from her.

Like most seniors, she wants to be viewed as wise and experienced, not treated like a child.

Eventually Rachael realizes she shouldn’t be the one to give her mother counsel about her weight. Instead, she calls her mom’s doctor to share her concerns and asks if he can address it at their next appointment. Not surprisingly, her mom is much more receptive to hearing advice from a medical professional than her daughter.

While her ego is bruised at first, Rachael comes to understand how important it is to her mother’s self-concept that she be the sage advice-giver and not vice-versa.

5. Encourage Their Religious Activities

In a country where fewer people are identifying with any religion (only a third of adults under 30 say they're affiliated with one), senior citizens remain extremely faithful.

According to Pew Research, only 9% of those over 65 have no religious affiliation. By keeping their faith, these seniors reap the significant health benefits of being believers, including the following:

  • Lower blood pressure. A study found that older adults involved in their religion are 40% less likely to have high blood pressure than those less involved.
  • Greater satisfaction with their lives. Religious people report a higher degree of happiness and contentment than their non-religious counterparts. Experts believe this is due to the powerful social bonds they have through their churches.
  • A longer lifespan. Researchers discovered those attending weekly religious services live 2-3 years longer than those who don't. Experts believe religious people live longer because they enjoy the psychological benefits of going to church: more friendships, an established social network, plus time set aside to meditate and pray.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on April 27, 2016:

Denise, your in-laws were lucky to have you during their final years. Changing people is usually a futile task, especially when they're elderly. Accepting and enjoying them is the way to go...and stepping away at times to re-charge. Thanks for contributing!

Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on April 27, 2016:

On the poll, I would have checked "all of the above" if that had been an option! My husband's parents both passed away during the past two years. During their final decline, I had to bite my tongue many times as I was tempted to preach the basics of good health to them! When it finally dawned on me that they wouldn't be around much longer, I just did everything I could to help them be comfortable and enjoy the time they were with us. Now, as I look back, those times were the most joyous!

McKenna Meyers (author) on April 25, 2016:

Taking care of an aging parent reminds me of when I had my first baby. It forces me to slow down and take stock of what really matters. I'm much more deliberate in my actions and not so scattered. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on April 25, 2016:

Very useful and informative article. It is true that people should keep themselves prepared how to cope with their aging parents. This will ensure a tension free life both for the aging parents and their children. The coming generations will also learn how to treat elders by looking at their own parents' method of treating their elders.

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