Ask Jen: Caring for Aging Parents

Q: My father had to spend last week in bed after his back went out, just as my mother was diagnosed with osteoporosis. With my parents aging, I know that their care will ultimately rest in my hands. But as an only child, this terrifies me. How can I prepare for our reversal of roles without becoming paralyzed by the thought of my parents' passing?
-- Sonia L., Madison, Wisconsin

A. I can certainly relate to your worries. I write this as I sit beside my ailing father, keeping him company so that my mom can go out by herself for a few hours. It's both a time of sweet intimacy and piercing grief.

Perhaps the best way to prepare is by deepening your trust in yourself. As Buddhist insight meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says, "Faith is not a commodity we either have or don't have -- it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience." Foster faith in yourself to handle the pain and challenge of your parents' future situation by noticing how you are dealing with things unfolding right now. Focus on the present -- not on your apprehension about experiences that don't yet exist. You will develop your faith and get past your fear of what may happen later.

You should also examine your own assumptions. What do you really mean when you say "Their care will ultimately rest in my hands." Why? How much of their care? What amount of time and money can you actually afford to give? Few of us are willing to look at this subject in a scrupulously honest manner -- yet when we don't, we invite resentment, exhaustion, and sometimes a tragic derailing of our lives. Be honest with yourself. Is it part of your family's code of honor to take care of aging parents no matter what? Do you feel it would give your life a level of dignity and honor it lacks? Invest time in probing what care and support you're willing to give. Of course, this doesn't mean you won't be called on to give more than you expected, but at least you'll go into the situation knowing your motives -- and your limits.

Next, gather facts to support your vision of the future. What do you know about your parents' savings, pensions, Social Security benefits, and supplemental insurance? What plans, if any, do they have for long-term care or assisted living? What kind of support system do they have in addition to you? Don't wait until they're seriously ill to address these questions. Start a fact-finding conversation. Share your ideas; ask what plans and expectations they might have. Don't give up or freak out if they have none. Be willing, gently and over time, to keep declaring what you can do for them and what they need to start creating for themselves. It may sound like a cruel boundary to draw, but when you do it with tenderness and love, you dramatically deepen your relationship and help them confront their own fears with strength and dignity.

Finally, don't neglect to envision what support you want for yourself. Drop any Lone Ranger scenario and boldly ask, "If I could have any kind of community and support in my life right now, what would I want?" Consider friends, relatives, inspiring books, spiritual practices, restorative places, and professional help in the form of therapists, coaches, and health-care providers. Be greedy. It's the rare person who actually allows herself to ask for what she needs. But having courage to do so is vital. You will be enough -- especially if you build trust in yourself to weather this passage with intention and love.

-- Jennifer Louden is the author of six books, including her newest, "The Life Organizer: A Woman's Guide to a Mindful Year." Visit her at jenniferlouden.com. If you have questions about some of the life issues you face today, email them to jennifer@bodyandsoulmag.com.

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