Julie: Can we talk about what it’s like from a child’s perspective, to watch our parents age? There is often a shift from being the child to a sudden full-on role reversal. It can be distressing to realise that we are now the parent of our parent(s). For some, this is a subtle change but when a health concern is involved, that shift can be very sudden. Some people who have handled change in their lives without too much effort do find this process much easier to cope with. But for those who have had, and continue to have, toxic or strained relationships with their parents may find changes in their elderly parents difficult to handle. What are your thoughts?
Paul: Seeing both mum and dad decline in physical and mental health was a painful experience. There are a number of factors that made this transition difficult:
• They were in good health until 70 years old
• Neither my parents or myself had considered how life would be when their health deteriorated
• We all knew 'life is a cycle that ends in death'. But my ‘inner child’ was anxious and I needed time for the 'adult' to understand/adjust.
• Seeing them become more dependent on others, with no common interests with me, led me to a process of grieving.
• I was living in Portugal, whereas my family in the UK saw the changes every day and got to use them.
Julie: It sounds like this came about when you still depended on them to be your ‘parents’. I think that is quite common when a family has been quite closely connected. Is that true for you?
Paul: Yes, we were connected but as my mother’s needs couldn't always be fulfilled I felt rather lost.
Julie: Isn’t it interesting how the power dynamics of an adult relationship influence children, even as they become mature adults and often parents themselves? The issues I had to deal with around my mother were complex, e.g: as a child I had seen myself as the adult in the relationship due to her long-term addiction. When my parents divorced we didn’t see dad for nearly 10 years. I became mum’s only support but later became weary of this role. This in turn aroused impatience and frustration of not being able to heal her.
It wasn’t until I reached 30 that I fully let go of the need to fix her and seek her approval (which ironically changed things). It’s only now that I've turned 60, and she's 80, I have more patience and compassion. But it was imperative that I set boundaries and we do much better from a distance. This may sound harsh but when things get rough as adults supporting aging parents, we have to set boundaries - which actually help to keep relationships safe and strong.
Paul: That's true. Our own unresolved childhood traumas can make it difficult to be with those who were part of the trauma process. And part of this equation can be dealing with needy parents, i.e. those who become heavily dependent on their children for help. In some cases, parents could help themselves but have given up. Their depression and loneliness/emptiness can be one cause. What did help me was:
• Support from family members who had gone through the emotional cycle of caring for their elderly parents. They also had similar patterns of behaving with their parents and so could empathise with my experience.
• Mentally preparing for a period of emotional highs/lows.
• My counselling training, i.e. unconditionally accepting.
Julie: You make an important point here. I too benefited from my counselling training and personal therapy. I needed the support to help me realise that I was not the problem and to reverse the messages of not being good enough. Through this process, I was able to establish my identity – separate from that imposed on me by my parents and grandparents. It is also important to realise that:
• Feeling our emotions are an important part of the process, e.g. people who enter the geriatric stage are often fearful and confused.
• Exposing these emotions can be difficult for older parents to admit to their children
• It's important that our parents are given the freedom to express what’s inside of them, even if we feel resistant to hearing them.
• We must acknowledge that resistance within ourselves and empower our parents to be vulnerable when they are ready.
Paul: And if this arouses anxiety in ourselves we should deal with that outside of the parent-child relationship, eg. talk with a therapist or family members.
Julie: Exactly! It takes a lot of emotional energy to care for our parents. However, understanding what is happening to them both physically and mentally can be empowering.
Paul: Even highly evolved people struggle, e.g. The Guru Ram Dass, describes how he adapted his relationship with his elderly dad. Ram learnt to put aside his own ideals about how a father and son should spend time together. He learnt to cherish those precious hours with his Dad. These became memories to be cherished instead of being tainted by drama. This made me realise that I couldn’t be fully present for my parents whilst I was holding on to unrealistic expectations about how they ‘should’ be.
Julie: And also we need to face our own fears of mortality. This is challenging and we may fluctuate between feeling strong and feeling fearful.
Paul: Instead of drama and complaining we can offer our parents qualities that they tried to give us as children, i.e:
• Unconditional attention
In part three we’ll outline resources to help people cope with their elderly parents.
Julie Merchant is a US based National Certified psychotherapist serving the Expat community in Portugal. She can be contacted through her website: Lifeisgr8.com
Paul Jokinen-Carter is a Holistic Therapist and works in the fields of massage, Reiki healing and counselling. You can contact him on +351 910 665 601.