How to Deal With the Guilt of Not Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents

By Sarah Kaminski

Your decisions affect everyone around you, especially your elderly parents as they become more reliant on direct help. There comes a time when their independence becomes a high-stakes game.

On the one hand, they might feel too proud to accept assistance. On the other hand, the possibility of injury increases by a significant margin. This situation can become especially stressful for you if you live far away, so moving them to assisted living becomes a feasible option.

The pressure of guilt is inescapable. No matter how you deal with the situation, you will feel as if you are not taking care of your elderly parents or, at the very least, not doing enough. Thankfully, there are reasonable ways to deal with guilt.

Recognize and accept

“Knowing thyself” opens all the doors to healing. When guilt simmers in the back of your mind, it can lead to a whole range of psychological difficulties and relationships gone sour. When it comes to sensitive family matters, nobody needs worse circumstances. But it is a slippery slope – and you have to acknowledge that.

Sometimes, you won’t notice the guilt because you are used to it. Parents can be especially adept at drawing attention to themselves by guilting you into oblivion. This doesn’t make them bad people; many of them do this unknowingly, usually because it is a learned mechanism – their parents have done this to them.

Try to accept them for who they are as people, rather than strictly parents, and try to read between the lines, even when the words hurt. Recognizing this is a solid foundation for finding peace of mind, but there’s still a long road ahead of you.  

Ensure that they are as secure as possible

The next step is a practical one. Make a list of all the things that you can do to ensure that your parents are as safe and secure as possible, especially if they live on their own and value their independence above all else.

See to it that their dwelling is a safe zone, that they don’t have to climb stairs, and maybe consider hiring a technician who can install waist-high railings along the wall to the bathroom. Consider a direct, but discreet link to the ER hotline for elders. 

As you check off the items on the list, it’s practically inevitable that you’ll get to the issue of professional help. Working with certified elder care professionals can often be a point of contention between an adult child and an elderly parent, but keep in mind that they’ll treasure this kind of help after a period of adaptation. So in the beginning you may need to be patient and stand your ground. It’s either that or assisted living.

Be supportive and inspire your elderly parents

Both positive and negative emotions between people work the same way: they’re about reciprocity. Now that you’ve made sure that your parents are safe and financially secure, ask yourself: where does the guilt come from?

As I’ve mentioned above, it’s usually parents that enhance the intensity of this emotion by ‘guilt-tripping’ you. The best solution is to start a positive process of reciprocity. Become supportive of your parents, support their cherished independence and encourage them.

When they fall back into the old routine of flooding you with critique and negative emotions, you have to steel yourself and pay no attention to them.

Remember: the most important thing is not to be provoked. Give them a cold shoulder, ignore the negativity and respond to the positives. After some time, your parents will change the tune – it’s human nature.

This ‘cold shoulder’ will also give way to another important thing: healthy boundaries. Drawing them on your terms will help diffuse the guilt.

Conclusion

There’s an elegant cyclic rhythm to life. After taking care of us for a long time, our parents come to an age where they need to rely on our help. But the roles aren’t entirely reversed. 

The difference here is that the elders have a lifetime of experience behind them. And that’s an important element that nurtures their sense of self and independence, and which can be a point of friction between you and them.

One of the ultimate byproducts of this friction is that you are riddled with guilt. The feeling that you’re not doing enough to take care of your elderly parents is not a unique phenomenon; in fact, a majority of adults go through this. There is no such thing as an ideal situation, and you have to make the best of the cards you’ve been dealt.

This should always be a point of great consolation to you.

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