Watching loved ones decline in health and confidence due to old age is a challenging process. Your parents were once your role models and mentors, those you depended on for nurturing and provision. When the roles are reversed and they need your help and assurance, it can be disturbing, even though this is a natural and expected reality – intellectually, at least. 

If you are in the position of coping with an aging parent’s mental and physical neediness, it’s likely that you are also caring for your own children, and facing the financial and career challenges of mid-life, plus your own increasing limitations. The sandwich generation, as it is referred to, is not a comfortable position to be in.

Processing this stage of life

Depending on family norms and culture, your family will process this stage of life very similarly to how they have faced other challenges in the past. Family roles and expectations rarely change unless there is an awareness of the need for change and an intentional effort to change. For instance, birth order often dictates the burden of responsibility for the care of aging parents. The first-born (adult) child can often become, by default, the primary caregiver unless family meetings and discussions address a sharing of responsibility and division of labour. 

Due to love and concern in the face of genuine need and fragility, caregivers often underestimate their limitations and personal cost, while overestimating their abilities. Sometimes it is difficult to see, but the truth is that there is always some degree of choice: choice in terms of who, what, how much and when. If you have caregiving responsibilities, I urge you to examine your limited resources and set boundaries around aspects of care that are not critical, life-and-death scenarios. A trusted friend, feedback from spouse or children, counselling or support groups can aid in assessing your situation realistically. It’s crucial to pace yourself and safeguard your energy when dealing with the chronicity of caring for the elderly.

The necessity of self-care

Self-care, which many of us espouse, becomes even more necessary at this stage of life. Again, feedback from objective loved ones and trusted others can offer you a valuable reality check. Getting enough sleep, regular periods of play and relaxation, physical fitness disciplines, good nutrition, healthy social networks, emotional support and safe places to share must be a priority. Times of receiving and asking for help bring balance to the otherwise overwhelming expenditure of energy, heart and practical resources. 

The pinnacle of self-care in this season of life is to be especially vigilant about cultivating a vital relationship with God. Make time to be alone to quietly attend to what God is saying to you and embrace opportunities to exercise trust; these are powerful gifts to further your spiritual health and growth. 

Letting go

As your elderly parent faces the increasing loss of their freedoms, friends and identity and becomes more anxious and dependent, you, as caregiver, need to let go of anything in your parent’s journey that does not belong to you. This is a tricky, ongoing spiritual discipline, but it yields rich spiritual rewards. 

Our parents belonged to God long before they were loaned to us. Keeping this bigger picture in mind and seeing the process from God’s perspective is helpful. There is wisdom in getting out of the way and resisting the impulse to try to control circumstances that may be designed by God to bring someone closer to Himself. He is, and must be, your parent’s number one source as they near home. It is our work to find ways to honour our parents and support where we can, while keeping the big picture in mind. Have the grace to entrust the ultimate care of your loved one to our Heavenly Father. Staying sane around what your priorities are and what matters most, especially spiritually, can only produce health and blessing. 

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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