Caring for our ageing parents is a role reversal for which we’re never really prepared. It can also be a rare opportunity to come to terms with the most important relationships in our lives.
Having our parents become dependent on us is one of life’s big milestones. However long we can see it coming, we are never really ready take responsibility for the people who gave us life and brought us up. This role reversal is disorientating at any age, but especially so in our middle years when we’re grappling with somewhat of an existential crisis.
Our forties and fifties are typically a time of instability, when we’re coming to terms with the fact that our youth is behind us, and trying to decide how we want to spend the rest of our lives. This also happens to be the time when many of us become responsible for our ageing parents, which both limits our choices and makes us more acutely aware of our own mortality. The result is often an awkward mixture of nostalgia and resentment.
Of course, we want to do everything we can to make the rest of their lives as comfortable as possible, as our parents have always been there for us. But, it’s also common to feel trapped and guiltily afraid that the situation will go on indefinitely and who are we supposed to turn to now. Ambivalent feelings are entirely normal and can also be amplified by the fact that we can no longer to our parents for emotional support like a safety bubble that has burst, particularly if we see our parents suffering, unable to walk or hold a conversation. Seeing our parents age also forces us to admit that we too are growing older, but at the same time we lose perhaps our most important guide or mentor, leaving an empty space.
One can expect to go through the entire spectrum of grieving emotions losing a symbolic kind of anchor even if you’ve never been particularly close and you must grieve for this loss. If, on top of these complex feelings of grief, we take on too much practical responsibility, our health, relationships and careers can suffer. International research has shown that more employees take time off to look after their ageing parents than to look after their sick children. Furthermore, over-committed caregivers often develop stress induced illnesses and burn out, leaving them incapable of tending to their parent’s needs.
It is important to remember that in deciding between homebased care or an old-age home , there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that our sense of obligation needs to be balanced by an acknowledgment of our limitations, both practical and emotional.
In the midst of this upheaval, dormant family conflicts often reappear. During the years we create our own adult lives, our habitual gripes and failed expectations of our parents lose much of their intensity. But having them rely on us can catapult us back in time, straight into the patterns at play before we left our childhood home . Their best may have fallen short, but we quickly realise that in the same position, we, too, can only do the same. So, for all its rawness and turmoil, the role reversal offers a rare opportunity to come to terms with feelings of resentment, and relate on the basis of real compassion.
Watching your parents age means losing a symbolic kind of anchor too. Unresolved issues may surface when we care for our parents as well as complex feelings of nostalgia and resentment, but this phase of life, with awareness is also a rare opportunity for healing and growth. There is more time to talk and more opportunities to connect.
It is important to know that our CJSA professional staff and other organisations working with the aged are able to provide both practical and emotional support for carers and their families, assisting to make this journey a pleasurable experience and the last gift our parents can give us.
Diana Sochen Executive Director
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