4 Ways to Understanding Your Aging Parent’s Biggest Challenges
Among the activities that Camp Reveille caregiver attendees can participate in, breakout sessions with care experts are included. Ken Druck, Ph.D., was one of these experts who focused on how to “raise an aging parent” and be responsible for their financial, mental and physical well-being. Dr. Druck continues to share his expertise in the following article he’s written for A Place for Mom caregivers.
Walking a mile in your aging parent’s shoes and understanding their biggest challenges may not always be easy. Nor is helping them get to know us as their full-fledged adult children. But these things help us enjoy and make the most of our time with them. They may be 90, and we may have just cashed in on our first “Senior Discount” at the movies, but they’re still our parents and we’re still their kids.
See the World from Your Parent’s Eyes
How can we have intimate, satisfying relationships and avoid the pitfalls that turn “golden” years and opportunities black? Decades of coaching families and consulting with family businesses have taught me a few simple things that adult children and aging parents can do to strengthen their bonds, clear the air when necessary and meet the challenges inherent in getting older and growing closer. Woven into all of these things is the willingness and ability, especially on the part of the adult child, to become even more understanding of their aging parent, including their biggest challenges.
Here are four ways to become a more compassionate, understanding, loving and forgiving person with your aging parent.
1. Do Your Best to Clear the Air of Old Baggage
Parent-child relationships of any age are bound to have at least some “baggage.” Growing up and raising children is not a simple or easy matter. Since none of us is perfect, we’re bound to screw up a few things along the way. The journey from being a helpless, dependent little child of a “bigger-than-life” Mom or Dad to becoming their caregiver is fraught with unprecedented danger as well as opportunity.
Carrying age-old anger, disappointment, resentment and jealousies into every conversation with our mother or father is like having a dark thundercloud hanging over us. The sky can erupt at any second and dampen or ignite even the most celebratory moments and milestones.
Clearing the air is a matter of psychologically “processing” the unmet needs of both our childhood and adulthood:
- Learn to let go of past wounds
- Release any transgressions
- Drop disappointments and failures and free yourself to forgive
- Accept and experience liberating gratitude for all the things that have gone right
Clearing the air clears a path for greater understanding and empathy, as well as intimacy, with our aging parent. This opens the doors of opportunity for the expressions of love and gratitude.
2. Take Inventory of Their Emotional Life
It’s been said, “Compassion is your pain or your joy in my heart.” Once you’ve taken honest inventory of your own emotionality and begun to clear the air, you can ask yourself, “Given all Mom or Dad has been through (i.e. getting older, moving from the family home, dealing with lingering health issues, etc.), what’s it like to be them?” Use your imagination to consider how they might be feeling about these things, including how they are feeling about you.
Here’s a few reminders to help you put yourself in their shoes:
Make it safe for them to open up and give rise to new found revelations.
Bite your tongue every time you feel the impulse to explain, prove or defend yourself, or judge them, by firing back — and just listen.
This is not a trial to prove who is guilty and/or worthy of love or appreciation.
It’s an open communication where you can learn something about your parent’s inner emotional life, give them the rare and precious gift of feeling understood and empathize (even if you do not agree) with them.
It’s as important to find out about their “biggest blessings” as it is their “biggest challenges.”
Asking them what gives them the greatest joy may surprise and even delight you.
Taking care of their physical needs is just one thing.
Being a trusted confidant with whom they share their emotional and spiritual needs, challenges and blessings — and who opens up to them in turn —builds genuine intimacy.
3. Forgive Them for Their Flaws and Limitations
Is there any better way to free up love and understanding in a relationship than by forgiving someone? Or by asking for their forgiveness with a humble apology?
Our parents did the best they could. Even in cases when they could have done better, and didn’t, they were doing the best they could.
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean relinquishing your right to be angry about what happened, or did not happen. You have every right to feel the way you feel — about the past, and about them. Their character flaws, limitations, hurtful behavior had an undeniable negative affect on you. But they were, in most cases, crimes of ignorance and inexperience.
Forgiveness means no longer tying up your thoughts and emotions in anguish, resentment and grief, trying to undo the past, punish or prosecute them. Freeing up “inner space” from the not-so-good past allows us to make room for good things to happen.
4. Show Them More Compassion, Kindness, Patience and Understanding (by Giving More of These Things to Yourself)
The roles get reversed as we age. The “Mommy” or “Daddy” who nurtured and protected us is now in need of our care and protection. You and your siblings are now the caregivers. Some of us approach our new role kicking and screaming with resentment. Others lay themselves out as doormats without any sense of boundaries. Then, there are those who seem to be able to strike just the right balance of caregiving with healthy doses of self-care.
How we take care of ourselves as caregivers sets the tone for how we treat our elderly parents. Self-criticism, guilt, approval-seeking and self-directed anger will almost always result in an ambivalent or resentful attitude toward caregiving. We’re in such distress, that it’s hard to empathize with how anybody else is feeling; or to see the world through their eyes. Without any real sense of who they are or why they’re saying or doing things, we may butt heads with them, find ways to avoid being with them or visiting them.
The caregiver who takes good care of themself, on the other hand, is more likely to:
- Have the bandwidth to listen
- Talk in a more calm manner
- Have the capacity to empathize and understand
- Be able to see the positive side of things
- Show kindness, patience and affection
None of us can control the behavior of our aging parent. Whether they’re kind, affectionate, sweet, endearing, thoughtful and loving — or distant, bitter, unapproachable, avoidant, manipulative masters of guilt — the one thing we can learn to control is our behavior.
Choosing the “high road” means leading with empathy, understanding, and forgiveness — and accepting they’re probably doing the best they can. Being perpetually angry and resentful, and punishing them (or yourself) for your unmet needs is taking the “low road” — and a sure formula for bitterness.
Let’s use the time we have left with our parents, and them with us, to harvest the unlimited opportunities that are often right under our noses. Let’s cultivate the best qualities of caregiving and of grateful offspring including loving kindness, patience, understanding, empathy, acceptance and forgiveness.
About the Author
Dr. Ken Druck, author, The Real Rules of Life: Balancing Life’s Terms with Your Own, is a family business consultant, speaker and international authority on resilience and aging. A speaker at Camp Reveille in 2013, Ken can be seen regularly on CNN, and read on Huffington Post, ShareCare, eHarmony.com, MariaShriver.com and, of course, www.kendruck.com.
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