I’m a caregiver. I’m also a mother. I’ve raised five children well into adulthood. I have 17 grandchildren of whom I am immensely proud, and now, I live with my 99-year-old mother. She has some memory loss and relies on me for company and to run the house, arrange for caregivers, and provide her with a social life.
And while some people might think being a mother has prepared me for taking care of my own mother…it hasn’t. Because helping your aging parent is a whole lot different from raising your children.
Caregiving for an aging parent is different from raising children.
Living with or near an aging parent with special needs or dementia exhausts us a lot faster than running after little children. With children, there is always a sense of hope because we know they will grow up. They will grow out of whatever misbehavior is driving us crazy at any one time. With your older parents, however, you might feel a sense of despair because you know it will only get worse. At least, that’s how I feel.
Also there is a time limit when we deal with our own children. We know they will only be a toddler for a year or so. We know they will eventually stop having tantrums in the market. We know they will learn to read and write. We know that one day somewhere within a 20 year span or so, they will graduate and move out of our house and be on their own.
Dealing with aging parents offers new challenges. We have no idea how long each phase will last. And each one leads to a loss of function and increased dependence, rather than growth and independence.
The reality is that when you’re caring for an aging parent, it can be hard to remain hopeful.
My caregiver survival kit
I’ve been a caregiver for my mother these last two and half years. It’s exhausting, overwhelming, and a lot of times I do fall into that spiral of despair. That’s why over the years, I’ve developed my own “survival” kit. These points help me get through the lows, so that I can enjoy the highs with my mother.
What you need for your own survival:
1.Sense of humor
This may be the most important thing of all. Laughing at adversity has a proven track record. It will make you healthier and happier. You may not have this talent innately, but you can learn to make light of your situation. Look for the humor in every action that may at first bring tears to your eyes. The funny combination of clothes your father assembled to wear when going out. The way your relative dribbles food down her chin when she eats The paranoia your family member exhibits about the strangest things. You can smile or you can cry. It is your choice.
Do you have a favorite funny movie? Was there a TV show that always made you laugh? You can watch these on TV or through a service such as Netflix or Hulu. Do it. You need to laugh out loud often.
2. Friends of your own
It is vital to have friends or a support group with whom you can share your feelings. Do not stuff your feelings inside. And do NOT feel guilty for negative thoughts or feelings. You are going through Hell. It is hard. It is sad. And you have no idea when it will be over. You need help in processing your fear and anger and uncertainty.
If you don’t have local friends, find a group that will understand. There are many support groups such as those at Iona, for adult children who are caregivers. If you cannot find one where you are, join a group such as Rotary, the Lions Club, or Toastmasters. You need people to socialize with and people who understand. That is why the support groups designed especially for caregivers are best of all. Find one and join it right away.
You may be forced to give up parts of your life. You might move in with your parent. Or you could move across the country to be near them without actually living in the same house. In many ways your life will be turned upside down. So it is very important to have an idea of what you will do next. You need to envision a life in your future. You can begin to plan with words written in a journal or perhaps with a “Vision board”. I’ve been keeping a journal for three years now, and it has been a source of comfort in my life. It helps me process my feelings and reflect on the daily changes in my life. And looking back, it is fun to read. I enjoy writing in it very much because it is something proactive that I can do for myself.
You will get through this. So be inventive about ways to enjoy life now. Be brave about planning for the future. The future will come.
4. An inner life
Are you a member of a faith community? Do you have a strong spiritual belief? Are you a Buddhist or a Yogi? Do you like to read about Quantum Physics? What ever it is, practice it. If you are religious, go to your place of worship. If not, then try to find something that resonates with you. Meditation works magic for many people. There is great peace in knowing that we are not alone. There is solace in knowing we are part of something greater than ourselves.
Or, you might prefer going for a walk or simply taking time to read, rest, or meditate. Either way, I encourage you to find a way to explore your own inner life. Sometimes this happens most easily by studying the lives of others who have written about it.
You can wish for it. You cannot buy it. You must learn it. Good luck!
Do you have other caregiver survival tips? Please share in the comments!
By Bonnie B. Matheson
Bonnie B. Matheson is a mother, grandmother, and daughter. She is an author, life coach, and insatiably curious person. Bonnie graduated from George Mason University with a B.A. in psychology in 1998 at the age of 56. Her book, Ahead of the Curve: an intimate conversation with women in the second half of life, is available for sale on Amazon. Today, Bonnie lives in her old room at her mother’s house in Washington, DC (Bonnie’s house is in Charlottesville, VA). Her two small dogs, Lord Byron and Magnus, keep her company.