“During times of prosperity, be joyful, and in times of misfortune, know that the source is the same.”
-Ecclesiastes chapter 7, verse 14
Perhaps one of the last few remaining taboo topics is recognizing the universal distress we adult children experience watching our parents succumb to the rigors of aging. Despite having nearly four decades of experience working with people in various roles, I cannot recall a single circumstance where this stage of adult life went smoothly. Even those adult children graced with parents thoroughly prepared for their retirement were not adequately prepared for the challenging reality that this juncture in life presents.
Learning to recognize and acknowledge our inner life is essential for harmony in general. However, these emotional skills are even more vital for navigating this specific task of watching parents grow into old age. To minimize stress, there are several points to keep in mind.
- Consider your own ability to tolerate change, a factor paradoxically described as the universe’s only constant. If you are a “go with the flow” flexible person, who can nimbly adjust to life’s surprises, you are blessed with a constitutional buffer for this trying process.
- Parents are our first source of safety, comfort, and massive “bigness.” Our first emotional impressions of our parents are of immense capability, wisdom, and strength. They are our first real superheroes, with all sorts of powers that our little selves were in constant awe. Now, through no fault of our own, they become fragile and vulnerable. At best, a disconcerting, inevitable role reversal but, more likely, this process feels scary and frightening.
- Being able to acknowledge your own tolerance for loss will be important. Like your aging parents, you will feel grief, mourning the loss of vitality of these amazing capabilities your parents used to demonstrate naturally. Activities such as driving, shopping, and basic house maintenance were all once seamlessly achieved but are now experienced as laborious and potentially dangerous. Openly and clearly acknowledging the loss of such functioning to ourselves will help us accept this new, unfamiliar, and unwelcome reality that is inevitable with aging parents.
- Appreciating the impact of the quality of your life-long relationship with your aging parent is one of the strongest forces in how this progresses. Making peace with how things were in your collective pasts will be useful in being constructively present for moving forward. It might be time to let go of long-standing regrets and resentments and embrace the finite amount of quality time remaining.
- Your geographical capacity for direct involvement will influence this journey’s course and emotional tone. Knowing your limits and tolerances with direct contact with your aging parent is essential.
- Feeling angry and frustrated with how this process impacts the quality of your own life and peace of mind is very common. You must exercise large doses of self-compassion with your strong reactions to this process. Knowing and accepting that such feelings are normal will help you move along emotionally.
- Accepting the limits of what you can influence and control is another essential life skill whose importance comes into sharp focus with aging parents. All you can do is give it your best and refrain from judging yourself on externally-based results, which you cannot control. Responsibly recognizing the limits of what you can take on is an act of being responsible. Overcommitting yourself to avoid immediately feeling guilty will have distressing and dysfunctional consequences in the long run.
Taking the time to think about these transitions will make them feel less disconcerting and give you some guideposts as you all go along this journey. Developing perspective is fulfilling in its own right. However, if you are feeling overwhelmed and not doing well, getting professional help might be useful.
Dr. Jeffrey Singer maintains an active forensic and clinical practice. He is licensed for independent Psychology practice in New Jersey and New York.