“I need some help,” my mom called out from a bathroom in my house. As I walked down the hall toward her, I struggled with mixed emotions: alarm, concern, and compassion all motivated me, but embarrassment made me hesitate before opening the door.
Sitting on the toilet, Mom looked at me with the same bewildered expression I saw on my toddler son’s face when he couldn’t do something he wanted to do. Her voice shook with emotion as she softly told me that she couldn’t stand up. The chemotherapy she had gone through lately to treat leukemia had sapped her muscle strength.
“I hate to ask you this, but will you pull me up and help me get my pants back on?” Mom asked. Then she began to cry – something I rarely had ever seen my usually strong and cheerful mom do. Tears ran down my face, too, as I pulled her up.
Mom had to depend on me like a child in that moment. We had switched parent/child roles, and it was challenging for both of us.
When our parents get sick or grow old, we often become their caregivers, and when that happens they rely on us like we used to rely on them growing up. Our roles shift, and we have to figure out how to parent our parents. Here are 5 things you should know about this challenging time:
1. Expect challenges. Ask God to help you have realistic expectations. Taking care of aging parents is an important and demanding endeavor. It’s vital to step up to the responsibility with realistic expectations. Your parents will need you, just as you needed them when you were growing up. Being there for them, however, will cost you time, money, and physical and emotional energy. You will have to adjust every part of your life to make caring for your parents a high priority. It will be stressful and uncomfortable at times. So don’t sugarcoat the reality of the challenges you face, or deny difficult emotions (such as resentment and fear) that you may feel. Instead, pray regularly about the caregiving process, honestly expressing your feelings to God and asking him to answer your hard questions. You can count on God to help you every step of the way. Although your caregiving work may often be mundane – driving your parents to errands and medical appointments, cooking their meals, cleaning their house, reading to them – it all has eternal significance, because it expresses love, which God values more than anything else. So be confident that God notices and celebrates your efforts, and trust him to provide whatever you need in your caregiving journey.
2. Seek support without guilt. No one can handle caregiving well alone. You’ll need support from other trustworthy people who also care about your parents’ well-being. Talk with other family members (such as your siblings and your spouse), close friends, and professional caregivers like nurses and personal assistants (you can get referrals from your parents’ doctors, your church, or your community’s agency on aging). Set up a support system that will give you respite time whenever you need it to take good care of your own health, with enough exercise, recreation, and sleep. Don’t feel guilty about doing so. You can’t take good care of your parents if you don’t care well for yourself first.
3. Engage in difficult conversations with courage. Don’t hesitate to discuss issues raised by your parents’ declining health, like the need to take more medications or to stop driving or to move out of their home into an assisted living residence or nursing home. Listen to how your parents feel about the awkward and upsetting changes in their lives, letting them express their frustrations honestly. Ask the God to empower you to respond with kindness and gentleness. Talk with others on your caregiving team honestly when changes need to be made, even when doing so is difficult – such as when you need more support from one of your siblings who isn’t pitching in to do his or her fair share of the work. Postponing these conversations that no one enjoys but that need to happen will only allow problems to get worse. So ask God to give you courage to talk about challenges, and to guide your conversations so they lead to effective solutions.
4. Respect your parents’ wishes. You will likely disagree with your parents about some issues – both minor ones (like what to make for dinner) and major ones (like decisions about health care directives and financial plans). Whenever you encounter disagreements, keep in mind Exodus 20:12, which urges: “Honor your father and your mother so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Show your parents the respect that is due them by honoring their wishes whenever possible, despite your personal preferences. If your parents see that they can count on you to do so, this will give them tremendous relief. The aging process sends so many circumstances into their lives that they don’t want to happen, but the freedom to still choose what they want (when they do have a choice) keeps their dignity intact.
5. Have fun together whenever possible. A little bit of fun will go a long way to help relieve the stress of caregiving for both you and your parents. Even though the majority of your time together may, by necessity, be taken up with caregiving chores, you can always make some time to enjoy some fun activities with your parents. Even simple breaks like playing a board game, baking a batch of cookies, or playing with a pet together can do wonders for helping you all stay positive even in the midst of stressful circumstances. Try to laugh together often, as well, since humor will help you find the positive aspects of any situation. Whenever it’s possible to make time for something fun together, do it.
Parenting your parents won’t be easy for you or your parents. But with God’s help, it can be a wonderful exercise in learning how to love each other more. Since love is what matters most to God, there’s no more valuable lesson you and your parents can learn together.
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, produces a site about angels and miracles for About.com. She is author of the young adult inspirational novel Dream Factory (which is set during Hollywood’s golden age) and writes about the power of thoughts on her “Renewing Your Mind” blog.
Publication date: November 9, 2015