When Aging Parents Give You Headaches, Give Yourself Time to Cope

By Sarah Kaminski

There comes a time in everyone’s life when we suddenly find ourselves wedged between our children and our parents.

Without even realizing it, we become a stable part of the sandwich generation, and coping with our responsibilities on two fronts becomes the norm.

However, this role we take on often weighs us down more than we realize – and we begin to show clear signs of strain and demotivation.

How can we deal with our aging parents who are dependent on us more and more, but may refuse to cooperate?

Let’s try to answer that question.

The importance of caregiver care

You know how attendants on flights always instruct that we should put oxygen masks on ourselves first if an emergency arises, and then try to help someone else?

The same principle applies in life – you need to take care of yourself first, in order to allow yourself the emotional stability, energy, patience, clarity, and opportunity to help someone else.

When my parents first got sick within six months of each other, I decided (not that it was ever a conscious decision), that I’d just accept my weariness and all the stress, the lack of sleep, and the poor diet choices, as something I need to get through in life.

I compared it to having a newborn – you simply adapt and wait for it to blow over.

The thing about caring for your parents is that it might not blow over for another decade. Once we settled into a calmer state of accepting they were now both sick but are expected to live quite long lives, I still hadn’t refocused on myself.

When I fell asleep during my daughter’s first school play, and later snapped at my husband for waking me up, I realized things needed to change.

When taking care of others, you need to find time for yourself at all costs. Don’t ever dare consider this to be a selfish choice. You need to be well enough to be able to help others. If for nothing else, put yourself first for that reason alone.

The staples of your self-care routine should be eating well, sleeping enough, finding time to move your body, and giving your mind an outlet, be it reading, knitting, taking a bath, anything that you find will help you unwind.

Coping comes from knowledge

When dealing with an elderly and infirm parent, we often approach the issue from a completely wrong angle, I’m sad to say.

We try to get them to do what we want at all costs, and get them to accept our rationalizations, without actually stopping to consider what they want or need.

The first step in overcoming this is trying to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you are now 70, and your own kids come barging in to tell you how to live your life. If you’ve had trouble with your parents telling you what to do when you were young, you will certainly have the same issues when the tables are turned.

Another important thing to bear in mind is that different generations think differently. And while we base certain decisions on our heads, they may base them on their hearts.

Our parents and we come from very different backgrounds. We are the tech generation, our world moves fast, it’s getting smaller by the second, and we can find the answer to any question with the use of our fingers.

Our parents have lived at a slower pace. They may not know how to use all the gadgets, and they hanker after simpler times.

Coping with their irritability, and sometimes even their offensiveness, will come when you accept that they don’t think the way you do. Finding a better way begins once you start factoring their wishes into your plans for their future lives. It will take time, but if you allow for it, some strain will be lifted off the relationship.

Forgiveness is the path to coping

Finally, you need to practice the art of forgiveness – most importantly, on yourself. Yes, you might also need to forgive your parents for acting out, yelling, cursing, and anything else they might be up to.

But more importantly, you need to forgive yourself for being late, for being grumpy, for not making the right kind of soup, for forgetting a meeting, and everything else you will perceive to have failed at.

Taking care of others doesn’t mean being perfect and never making a mistake. It does not mean giving up who you are for the sake of others. Sacrificing your own happiness at the altar of another’s needs is not the way to provide care.

Once you accept that, you can stop beating yourself up and make the most of the situation you’re in.

Coping with the challenges of caregiving is a very personal and highly individual challenge. What worked for me may not work for you. Your parents might be just a tad more difficult, or your schedule more hectic. What’s important, however, is finding your own time and coping mechanisms, and sticking to them no matter what. Those you care for will thank you for it.