Elder Care: Managing Stress when you can't do everything
Posted Apr 27 2009 11:42pm
In one of my early posts, I presented a list of 10 ways to reduce the stress of having an elderly parent who needs your care. I'd like to return to that list, to share some thoughts on my suggestion #5: accepting that you may not be able to do everything that could be done for you parent.
How do you do this? If you recognize that something needs attention, how can you then ignore it?
There are several facets to this issue that may help explain it:
1. Realize that you are already skilled at selecting what to do versus what you can't or won't do. I offer for your consideration that in all aspects of your life you are already making choices about what you will do among the many options available to you. You do this when you prepare a meal, when you attend your son's soccer game, when you enroll in a night class at the local college, when you get up early to exercise before work. Every one of these examples presents you with a choice. Making these choices is so common in all adult lives that we don't even realize that we are accepting not to do some things when we decide to do others.
In each example above, the decision you make, by its very nature, means that you are notgoing to be doing something else during that time. The difference between my examples and making the same choices for your parent, is that you are already so practiced at the choices in my example, that you probably don't even think about them. Nevertheless, in each example I give, choices do exist. If you deconstruct for yourself why you are going to your son's soccer game (instead of working on a house project), or why you're getting up early to exercise (instead of sleeping in), you will find reasons for each choice you've made. And you'll relearn how you've made your priorities. That same goes for deciding what to do or not to do as a caregiver for your parents.
2. The notion of not doing everything that could be done for your parents is charged with guilt. Unlike some other aspects of life, it seems there's an unwritten code that, when it comes to aging or elderly parents, everyone's expected to be a super-hero. My question is: If it's unreasonable to believe that you can do everything in other parts of your life, why do you think you should now be able to do everything that needs to be done for your parent? If the former's not possible, why is the latter supposed to be possible? The obvious answer is simply: It isn't possible. Yet because this is our parents we're talking about, not doing everything makes you feel guilty.
I think some of this guilt comes from the fact that we no longer live in extended families, yet we still recognize what the extended family provided. It used to be status quo that the elderly and infirm lived with or near their relatives, that sisters, cousins, et al were nearby, and everyone could pitch in to help care for those who needed it. In our society, which is almost defiantly mobile, that support net no longer exists. It's great that we can all live where and how we want, but many people are also wistful for that sense of community and the support of family which have been lost in the process of endless moving. The one person who's left to take care of a nearby parent shoulders the burden of what used to be done by the extended family. We still know what could be done if there were lots of relatives around and because of that, we feel guilty that we can't accomplish it on our own. Remind yourself that you're only one person. It is not a platitude to say there's only so much that one person can do.
3. Doing the best you can is good enough. Here the issue is accepting that indeed you are doing the best you can. Deep down inside, no parent expects more from their child. Yes, in the throes of sorrows, aches and uncertainties, your parent may well gripe about many things. I think that's normal. It's not fun to feel bad all day long, to be worried about your health, to be confused. Putting aside our parents, many of us would agree that we have experienced those close to us dumping their aggravations on us. In my view that comes with the territory of being close to someone....you get great love and you also are the closest at hand and so get lashed out at from time to time. It seems it's no different with parents. But (and this is a big caveat), that doesn't mean that everything your parent says they need, or everything you may recognize could help them, has to be fulfilled. And it doesn't mean that, just because your parent asks for something, that they really need it or expect to get it. Sometimes it just helps them to express a wish, even when they know that reality won't match it.
To diminish the stress of not being able to do everything, you have to keep foremost in mind all the things that you are doing, and doing well. Congratulate yourself for those. Focus on what you've accomplished for your parent, whether small or large. This could be things like the fact that you are indeed calling them every day (and, no, you're not able to visit them every day and that's OK). Or you've set up a reliable meal service for them (and, no, you're not able to provide them with meals at your house every day, and that's OK). Or that you've gotten them involved in a fun and engaging outing once a week (which you can't attend with them, and that's OK).
I hope you see what I'm driving at here. If you train your mind to appreciate what you have accomplished, and allow yourself to feel good about that, there'll be less and less room for the distress of not doing everything.