While struggling to stay calm while parenting my child, I spent many hours researching about mindfulness and anger.
As things began to look upside in my relationship with Pari, I gradually noticed, that life was ready to throw another curve ball my way.
Though I had anticipated this many years ago, I had not in my wildest dreams imagined it to be this tough. I’m talking about the role of being a caregiver to my elderly parents.
Since my mother’s diagnosis of cancer, life has been crazy especially on the emotional and psychological level.
In the years gone by, I was driven by the hope that once my mother begins to feel better, over time, I’ll have the opportunity to relax and focus on my own life.
Little did I know that with each passing day as my parents are getting older, I’ll be in for a new role.
In a game, with unknown rules, that I was least prepared to play.
As the caregiver of my parents.
While my father is relatively disease free (though he too has his share of neurological issues), his patriarchial mindset has been undergoing major adjustment in the past year or so. He is struggling with the very idea of a role reversal where he plays the dependent (like a child) and I the provider.
Things are pretty different on my mother’s front.
When life dealt a bad hand at her on the health front, her only son’s misadventures further added to the troubles of her frail mind. Though her grit has helped her overcome many hurdles. The chronic illnesses she’s battling and the sheer exhaustion of constantly being in a combat mode is beginning to show on her.
Every day is different and yet I find myself increasingly less equipped to handle the pressures of being the sole caregiver of a feisty child and two (almost similar) elderly children.
At times like these, it is pretty easy to get sucked in, lose ourselves and feel frustrated or agitated most hours of the day.
I too did.
In fact, I do even now at times.
But it’s not the struggle of a single day, it shall go on, even aggravate with time.
At home, senior care can be exhausting, frustrating and sometimes depressing too.
Armed with this understanding, I have set up a survival system that helps me stay sane, prevents caregiver burnout while tending to the needs of my family:
1. Accept the change:
Life as a caregiver to my parents is not the same as it was a few years back. Things have changed dramatically in the past 8 years ever since my mother was diagnosed with a number of chronic illnesses.
My parents were confused and at first in denial that they needed my support and care because it has been the other way round all these years. However, acceptance of this radically changed paradigm is gradually beginning to show with each passing day. I’d be honest, that not only my parents but I too had a lot of acceptance to do when I embarked on this new journey.
2. Have a clear understanding of the medical conditions:
While resorting to Google for information on medical conditions comes reflexly to all of us, trusting the medical practitioners is always the best practice. Understanding the signs and symptoms and being mentally prepared for them often helps avert big troubles and worsening of situations.
In the years of me accompanying my parents for various tests and review appointments, having the doctors address my concerns and sometimes even talking my parents through about them has had proven results.
3. Keep your emotions in check and expectations to the bare minimum:
While every day dawns just the way it used to be when I was a child, the differences begin to show from early on. Every day I wake up with uncertainty about how the mood swings of my parents will change the course of my day.
There are many occasions when I have a calendar packed with tasks to complete, deadlines to meet and nothing gets done. On those days I am either too busy being the empathetic child my parents need or running the errands my parents believe need our attention right NOW.
At first, I used to get very irritated. I have many times revisited the Why that defines why I chose to take care of my parents, unlike my brother. On each of these occasions, I have, albeit with some effort, learnt to respect my choices and stop being resentful for the unpredictability of my life.
And then there are days when I am rewarded by a sudden show of appreciation or even affection by my parents who are very conservative in letting their love for me show openly. I can safely say, it’s moments like these that keep me going.
4. Be prepared to face your parents’ anger like never before:
This has been my top area of concern. The transformation (though am not sure if there has been any) from being authoritarian parents to the ones who accept help from their children and sometimes even follow advice without resistance is NEVER easy. And on its way bring many angry outbursts that make caregiving emotionally draining and often painful.
I sometimes think that this is the true reason when my father has not (yet) ever praised my driving skills or any skills for that matter in a long time. He is most angry when he has to depend on me to get his things done.
My mother too gets angry, though her ways of expressing her anger are more worrisome than my father’s. While my father resorts to an angry outburst, my mom starts crying and mind you, at times, those tears can scald you more than angry words.
5. Be open to their advise and words of wisdom:
I’m a huge fan of the book “Tuesdays With Morrie” by Mitch Albom. One afternoon while caring for my mother post surgery, it dawned on me how blessed I am to be in the loving guidance of my parents.
If you’re wondering what exactly is the connection between the book and my gratitude towards my parents, let me explain.
The time I spend taking care of my parents are the moments when I learn precious nuggets of wisdom from their life experiences. Often the conversations begin with me talking about my struggles and every single time, my parents have a way of solving the issue or inspiring me into a perspective shift that helps me move on.
Though the acceptance of their wisdom didn’t come to me without resistance, once it did, I am left brimming with immense gratitude for this gift.
Isn’t that exactly what fabulous books like Tuesdays With Morrie do too? These moments of togetherness are blessings in disguise that often allow room for bonding with our parents like we never did in our growing years.
6. Allow them plenty of space and autonomy:
While it is easy to forget that our parents are NOT our children, it pays to remember reality. Every person craves control over their lives and our elders are no different. Initially, when my mother’s diabetes was uncontrolled, I tended to over-do the controlling of her diet and lifestyle. The result was a loss of control over our lives and a stressed relationship.
It was only with time that I learnt constraint and started allowing more freedom and autonomy for my sick and frail parents. Besides, this space is much needed for a caregiver’s peace of mind.
7. Allow them room to fail and learn from their mistakes:
This one is tricky both in the case of our children and our parents. It is easy to fall into the trap of being overprotective, guided by our concern for the well-being of our loved ones. It takes time and trust in their instincts to let them do things they love.
For example, regular cooking and cleaning up the house often takes a toll on my mother’s health. Earlier I used to get upset seeing her indulge in these. Though over time I have realised how important it is for my mother to feel connected to her former self. In the process of failing, she has gradually learnt to exercise moderation.
As long as there aren’t any major health concerns, it helps to let our elders decide their care needs and establish a balance between their health state and carrying on with life on their own terms like they have for the most part of their lives.
8. Never play the referee for elderly parents:
It happens all the time that my parents indulge in an argument and one or both of them want me to convince the other about their point of view.
It’s a TRAP.
With time I have learnt to never be lured to play a referee because in no time, my mother and father team up, again, and then things get difficult for me.
9. Exercise Patience:
Adult caregiving demands loads of patience. This is because we’re dealing with ill, old and frail individuals who are in a lot of pain on the physical, and/or emotional front. It often feels like I’m treading on eggshells because I have to be very careful about what I say and often also about how I say it.
It has taken me a lot of time to never indulge in arguing, no matter how strong the temptation might be. To learn to repeat multiple times without being agitated in the slightest, and to be encouraging and reassuring the way I am with my child.
10. Do not take things personally:
When my brother chose to sever all ties with my family, my mother’s fragile state was too much to handle for me. It was overwhelming and emotionally draining in ways I cannot describe.
After months of suffering seeing my mother in pain, I learnt to see her angry outbursts in a different light. It took me time to understand and accept that none of them was meant for me personally.
11. Set limits for yourself:
It helps to let our loved ones know from the start regarding the care you can offer in terms of time and services. Setting clear boundaries without being confrontational, might seem daunting in the start but helps maintain peace and harmony in the long run.
12. Learn to accept your feelings:
It’s OK to feel angry, guilt, irritability, frustration, stress and resentment. Negative feelings are a part and parcel of caregiving. However, accepting and understanding these feelings is the vital step that has helped earnestly look for and find coping mechanisms.
13. Self-Care is very important. Practice it relentlessly:
I have seen it first hand how easy it is to get sucked into the caregiving act that you forget that you too have a life and you should live it on your own terms. My mother did just that for the most part of her life taking care of my grandparents. While my grandparents lived long and relatively healthy lives, my mother earned for herself a lot of pain, resentment and unhappiness.
This example has been guiding light in making room for self-care and the things I love doing in my everyday. It has been an important step for me to let my family know why my life needs to be about me and things have only gotten better with time.
14. Regular exercise helps you stay fit both physically and emotionally:
After failing many times at maintaining a regular exercise schedule, I have reached a point where my body demands exercise every time I try to avoid it. The time spent exercising allows me to relax, reflect and also to indulge in listening to podcasts, audiobooks or even soothing music while helping me stay fit and agile.
15. Calm your mind with soothing music, meditation or reading:
Relaxation in the form of adequate sleep and also finding ways to keep my mind distracted from the noise and fatigue is a major step in staying sane during long-term adult care.
16. Do not let your vulnerabilities get in the way:
If you thought, your children were masters in pushing your buttons, trust me your parents are even better. As a caregiver, when roles reverse, sometimes parents resort to pushing your buttons when trying to regain their authority.
Needless to say, those moments are the toughest to survive. No amount of fatigue can match the burnout such emotionally unsettling situations can push you into. And on these occasions, falling into the endless pit of depression is rather easy.
The only way forward is to be sure that you are into caregiving because you REALLY want to do this. Then dive in with the full acceptance of your vulnerabilities so that NO ONE, not even your own parents can use them against you.
17. Let the extended family help out:
It is easy to want to stay in control of the caregiving because you gradually develop a ritual of taking care, remembering the medications and food requirements. But once in a while, accepting help from trusted (mind you, not any or every) family members can be a good change. It helps to break free from the monotonous cycle and spend time in a way you’d love to in a more carefree setting. Accepting support can be rejuvenating.
18. Be prepared for the unsolicited bits of advice especially from siblings:
During the years my parents took care of my grandparents, every time my uncles and aunts visited us, they would find inadequacies in the care in one form or the other. It is rather convenient to nitpick at what someone else is doing when it doesn’t affect you or your life in any way.
But as a caregiver, it can often lead to a lot of emotional distress. I have experienced it first hand only on a couple of occasions. And I’ll be honest, I was rather furious and frustrated both the times.
Who came to my rescue then? It was my parents who chose to stand by me and not pay any heed to the remarks of the people who do not shoulder responsibilities but are quick to judge others.
19. Plan ahead well in advance:
Proactive long-term planning in terms of expenses, insurances and other aspects of elder care is very important. For one, it helps streamline the process because there is a constant need for resources and often little opportunity to organise them. Among other things, having important phone numbers handy can save a lot of time and undue anxiety at hours of need. While planning, leave plenty of room for your personal aspirations and find ways to accommodate them in your action plan.
20. Have a friend you can talk to:
When the going gets tough, fatigue and being constantly on your toes takes over, cutting off from our friends is easy. I am guilty of having severed all ties with my friends on one pretext or the other.
It is a practice best avoided.
It was only after I reconnected with a few friends with whom I could talk freely and be myself did I find the peace that helps me welcome each new day with renewed vigour and optimism. And best of all, many of these friends I found through my blog.
It’s a big world and finding the people who feel a connection with you can happen in ways we can never imagine. Being open to friendships and connections in an authentic way really helps stay sane. When meeting friends regularly isn’t an option, phone calls are helpful too.
21. Have fun:
Elder care is a long-term commitment. It helps to learn to enjoy it to make it a seamless part of your and your elderly parents’ lives. My child helps achieve it big time. The requests for an occasional outing or going to the movies easily gets shrugged off when it comes from me. However, there has been a 100 per cent success rate when such requests came from my daughter.
Board games, singing, the daily banter are some of the easy ways to add joy to the crazy busy life. These fun times also benefits the mental health of people suffering from chronic illnesses, like my mother. Besides, such activities easily allow me the opportunity to do the things I love while carrying on with life in general.
Caregiving involves time, commitment and sacrifice. While the role of a caregiver to elderly parents seems daunting, it can get a lot easier if you have an action plan in place and develop a support system to keep you and elderly parents sane and go on in life at a peaceful pace.
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The song on my mind: Tu Bin Bataye ~ Rang De Basanti
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