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My Tips for How to Care for an Aging Parent and Keep Your Sanity

Having missed out on involved grandparents, the author urges older folks to seize their chance to positively impact their grandchild's life.

Senior citizens have earned the right to live their last days as they wish. Don't try to change them and don't nag.

Senior citizens have earned the right to live their last days as they wish. Don't try to change them and don't nag.

As people live longer, many adult children find themselves in charge of their aging parents for years and even decades. Some are now caring for their elderly parents longer than their parents cared for them as kids. Whether you have a good, loving relationship with your folks or a challenging one, being responsible for them takes patience, compassion, and a good sense of humor. You must pace yourself, ask for help, and stick up for your own needs.

1. Keep a Balance in Your Life

If you had children at an older age like I did, you may find yourself a part of the sandwich generation—a term used to describe middle-aged people dealing with the challenges of caring for both their growing children and aging parents. One day you might take your 13-year-old son to the dermatologist for pimples and the next day your mother to the urologist for incontinence. You might deal with high levels of stress as you struggle to meet everyone's needs while clinging to your sanity. As you proudly watch your children branch out into the bigger world, you sadly see your mom and dad wilt and become more dependent on you. Through this journey, your goal is to keep your life in balance while taking good care of yourself—not just your aging parents.

I love you but I got to love me more.

— Peggi Spears

2. Acknowledge Any Resentment You May Feel

As our parents age, we might begrudge taking care of them, especially if they weren't loving and supportive to us when we were children. When I was a kid, my mother was extremely self-involved, plopping me in front of the television all day and never getting to know me. When I became a mother myself, she was too busy with her new boyfriend to care about my precious babies. Now, having suffered a stroke, approaching her eighties, and losing her short-term memory, she needs a lot of my attention and I get resentful.

If you're caring for a parent who wasn't a great parent to you, it hurts. You may have flashbacks to your childhood when she wasn't there for you, was critical of you, or made you feel unlovable. It's important to acknowledge your feelings. Talk about them with a trusted friend. Ask for support from family. Get professional help. Most importantly, don't expect care-taking to change her or your relationship. Don't expect it to heal the old wounds. Take care of yourself and keep your expectations realistic.

3. Educate Yourself So You Know What to Expect

We may feel ill-equipped to handle an elderly parent as she declines physically and mentally. While many of us know to expect temper tantrums from 2-year-olds, egocentricity from 5-year-olds, and rebellion from 17-year-olds, most of us don't know what to expect from an aging parent. This ignorance may lead us to lose patience, get frustrated, and grow resentful. While it's important to keep in mind everyone ages differently, it's also useful to educate ourselves about what older folks feel and experience. This knowledge helps us stay compassionate in trying times.

4. Let Them Talk About the Past

For many years, I got frustrated when my 79-year-old mother reminisced about relatives and friends who had long been dead. I urged her to live in the moment— to take pleasure in her young grandsons and not escape to memories from decades ago. It hurt my feelings that she didn't want to create special moments with my kids but wanted instead to replay the past in her head.

But by educating myself about early Alzheimer's, I learned not to take my mom's preference for the past so personally. 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.”

5. Accept That You Will Hear the Same Stories Again and Again

Older folks have a better memory for the distant past than they do for recent events. So brace yourself to hear the same stories again and again about "the good old days." I stopped thinking: Oh no, not that story again. I'm going to find a rope and hang myself if I have to hear it one more time! Instead I thought: Don't say a word. Let this be your gift to her. It won't kill you to hear it one more time.

From time to time, I tell my mother she's repeating a story, but I do it in a loving way. I reassure her she's not alone; I repeat stories and so do my friends. Studies show that senior citizens have a greater difficulty than younger people at remembering who they've told a story to and who they haven't. It's just part of getting older.

6. Get Your Family Involved

Don't become a martyr and try to care for an aging parent by yourself. Get your entire family involved. Once I did that a tremendous burden lifted from my shoulders and I developed a better sense of humor about it all. It takes a village to care for our children and it takes a village to care for our aging parents.

When my mom begins to tell the same story I've heard a million times, I might interrupt and say: “This is such a good one, Mom. Let me get the boys so you can tell it to them.” This teaches my sons what it means to respect their elders. It teaches them compassion and patience. It makes my mom feel important as she imparts valuable lessons to the next generation.

I also have my sons help her dictate stories into a tape recorder. She absolutely loves doing this. I promise her we'll pass them down to her great grandchildren. Now when she repeats a story, I sometimes gently remind her: "Oh, that's a great story that you recorded with the boys! Do you want to listen to it?" Most of the time she declines, but I can tell she feels honored to have it a part of the permanent record. Older people want their lives to have meant something. They want to leave a legacy.

Don't be a martyr and take care of an elderly parent by yourself. Get everyone in the family involved so you don't burn out and get overwhelmed.

Don't be a martyr and take care of an elderly parent by yourself. Get everyone in the family involved so you don't burn out and get overwhelmed.

The greatest gift that you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.

— Brian Tracy

7. Accept That She Has Earned the Right to Live as She Wishes

While always overweight, my mother is now obese. She struggles with incontinence, breathing, and mobility—keeping her homebound and unable to exercise. She's never bounced back from knee replacement surgery five years ago and refuses to do the routines created by her physical therapist. Because her taste buds have diminished with age, she eats foods high in sugar and fat.

She's not alone. The number of older adults who are obese has doubled during the last 30 years, causing problems such as those plaguing my mother as well as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. My mom's obesity affects not only her physical health but her mental well-being. Her world has become small as she stays at home with her dog, watches far too much television, and thinks constantly about food. Going out to eat is her primary source of fun and entertainment. While it's sad for me to see her at the heaviest weight ever, I've accepted that I cannot change her.

8. Don't Nag

Nagging doesn't work. Professional advice from doctors and nurses doesn't work. The high price she's paid with bad knees doesn't work. My mantra now is the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Strength to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”

My mother—like all seniors—has earned the right to lead her life the way she wants. I don't want to spend one more precious minute with her scolding, nagging, or worrying. I've learned to just enjoy her. But I'm eating more carefully, exercising more faithfully, and realizing the profound effect weight has on our lives.

9. Encourage Her Religious Activities

My mother has always been religious—growing up in Catholic boarding schools and having once considered becoming a nun. As she approaches the end of her life, her religious activities have increased—attending daily Mass, delivering Holy Communion to the hospitalized, and proselytizing to anyone within earshot. She gets comfort from the rituals of her religion such as eating fish on Fridays during Lent, praying the rosary in honor of the Blessed Mother, and confessing her sins to a priest.

Even though I'm an atheist, I see my mom's commitment to religion as wholly positive. Her church is close to home and provides structure to her daily life with social events, friends, and fund-raisers. It's a safe place for her to spend time with people her age (and some even older). The priests have been more than kind and patient with her—even willing to listen to her never-ending internal conflict about having unmarried sex with her 80-year-old boyfriend (thank you, priests, I really didn't want to hear about that any more)!

Attending religious services is valuable for senior citizens—offering friendships, social events, and a safe place to gather.

Attending religious services is valuable for senior citizens—offering friendships, social events, and a safe place to gather.

10. Celebrate the Health Benefits of Religion and Other Social Activities

In a country where fewer people are identifying with any religion (only a third of adults under 30 say they're affiliated with a religion), senior citizens remain faithful. According to Pew Research, only 9% of those over 65 have no religious affiliation. By keeping the faith, 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.

You Are Not Alone When Struggling to Care for Your Aging Parent

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 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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