COMMENTARY: Taking care of Mom and Dad

This month and next, as we celebrate all mothers and fathers, many of us will be in the blessed but challenging position of helping our parents navigate their older years, when human fragility can bring on sometimes all-encompassing vulnerability.

This quasi role reversal is not exactly like becoming parents to our parents, although sometimes it might feel that way. There are many emotions that are deeply embedded in us, and a relationship and history forged over lifetimes that cannot be erased. This makes Mom and Dad always Mom and Dad and us always their children.

Yet, taking care of our parents is a very different sort of familial caregiving that balances making sure Mom and Dad are safe and protected and their needs are met, but also stepping back to give them respectful breathing room to continue their life journeys with as much autonomy and dignity as possible.

It also requires maintaining balance in our own lives, tending to health, finances and social and spiritual supports all along the way.

How is this balance accomplished? Or, is it even possible to achieve?

From my own experiences, recent and past, and speaking with others of faith who have traveled this journey, I can say that the balance required in caring for our parents is certainly a work in progress, always changing. Many times, there are no clear-cut answers for the challenges that arise, and sometimes there is little time to weigh options, too.

However, there are some fundamental touchstones without which the ability to balance is greatly undermined. These include honesty, love, faith and understanding of the practical issues involved in caregiving, alongside the no less real, but sometimes tough emotions of knowing our parents are coming ever closer to their ultimate end of being with Jesus.

Effective caregiving begins with communication — speaking and listening. At first, parents might say, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about us,” or “There’s no need to talk about that, now.”

Parents’ ideas of what they want for themselves might be very different from those of adult children, too. However, having conversations around health care directives, end-of-life considerations and health issues avoids scrambling and possible confusion later, if the time comes for children to step in as advocates.

It only adds to stress to have to tackle these issues for the first time in the crucible of the emergency room!

Framing discussions out of love and concern might help ease the way. Children can assure parents that they have their best interests at heart. Then, asking questions can set practical actions in motion.

These include whether health care directives are in place and if these are reviewed periodically to make sure they reflect current reality. If Mom and/or Dad should become unable to live independently, what kind of care might be available, affordable and of good quality? Which family member is best equipped to talk with medical professionals, take care of bill paying, make sure that pastoral and social aspects of parents’ lives are cared for?

Balance in caregiving includes understanding ourselves too. We might ask ourselves, How much time away from work, family or other responsibilities can caregivers take and keep those obligations and relationships healthy? These questions are not meant to deter from caregiving, but help with planning, setting boundaries and being effective for the ones we love when they most need our help.

Finally, praying through all our efforts, questions, decisions and conversations not only reinforces faith in action, but places all involved in God’s loving, comforting hands, assuring us that we are held dear and have support that is truly divine!

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