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Emotional Habits: Managing the Stress of Caring for Aging Parents

Posted Aug 24 2008 4:28pm

The drama of our aging parents takes place in an emotional landscape, an environment that can overwhelm us without warning or apparent logic. We seem to be bobbing corks on an angry ocean of feelings that ambush us time and again. No matter how composed we appear to be to the world, most of us wind up with what I term “emotional habits.”

Emotional habits are habits that follow the emotional upheaval of our interactions with our aging parents. We tell ourselves we are going to be calm, objective, and detached only to abandon these habits within the first few minutes of struggling with them over even the most trivial matters. Why?

Part of the answer lies in the magnitude and source of the emotional energy that punctuates every aspect of the drama of our aging parents. It is helpful to step back and consider two these sources:

1. Childhood Adult children are not neutral players in the aging parents drama; they are forever the children of aging parents. They carry with them a wide range of emotions about their parents, all of them intense and complex. This is why it is so easy for them to feel panicked, angry and guilty at the same time. They are not just trying to care for their aging parents; they are tying to fulfill unspoken obligations that are unique to their childhood experiences and, even more painfully, ones only they truly understand.

2. Family Adult children are not isolated players in the aging parents drama; they are forever part of an extend family system that includes brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and all the people they married. Adult children have many sets of eyes watching their caregiving efforts and all having opinions about it. So they wind up, consciously or unconsciously, frantically seeking layers of approval for contradictory and biased points of view that only escalates their emotional insecurities to unbearable levels.

Now what?

The first step is the gain an accurate perspective on the big picture. Most adult children are at an emotional disadvantage in working with their aging parents. This limits their objectivity, exaggerates their responsibilities, and increases the emotional vulnerability. Understandably, it makes them the primary target of their parent’s anger about in the “slings and arrows” of being old.

The second step is to gain an accurate perspective on the small picture. While adult children can not recast or ignore the emotional landscape the drama of aging parents, they can cut it down to size. While the complexity of the issues all beg a thousand things to worry about and to solve, the allocation unit of the journey is one day at a time. This should be the dominating insight that all adult children ask remember when they feel the pull of emotional habits. Here is the question they should ask themselves, over and over again: What is possible today?

Within this context, a number of important insights begin to surface:

1. I am in this for the long run and I need to make sure I am doing the things I need to do for myself that support the long run. Maybe this is just thirty minutes for a cup of coffee and the paper. Maybe this is a phone call to a “nutritious friend” who just listens. Maybe this is a surprising “no” when everyone expects you to say yes. Maybe this is a heart felt prayer that makes it clear you cannot do this alone. Within the day, you need long run moments that help you stay in the game.

2. I am doing the best I can do today with what I have. Tomorrow, next week, next month, next year will all arrive on schedule. But the allocation unit is one day. Only a few things will get done. Only a few calls will be made. Only a few needs will be met. Everything else will float into the future. No one can or should do more. Give it your best, engage in some long run moments, and see what tomorrow brings.

The goal is not to eradicate emotional habits; they are part and parcel of the drama of aging parents. The goal is to recognize them, resize them, and with patience and practice attenuate their impact.

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