Looking around at the faces of my women friends recently I experienced an ‘aha’ moment. With our children finishing school and leaving the nest we had experienced a paradigm shift of seismic proportions. Where we would once swap stories of the unique circumstances surrounding the births of our babies, wearing them like badges of valor, to the commiserating nods of fellow female warriors, we were now trading the trials and tribulations of the latest challenge surrounding our parents, or the most recent trip to the ER to deal with a health crisis. Where we once traded wisdom of the best baby products, of techniques for dealing with sleep deprivation or the merits of ‘letting them cry’, we are now sharing our fears about the dreaded phone calls in the dark of night telling us that “Mom had fallen” or “Dad left the stove on again”.
Impossibly, our children have grown from infants to responsible (if we are lucky) adults, and our parents have grown old, frail and even infirm. And yet, with all this growing and changing, we are still the same people, just with a different set of problems. The shift seems to have occurred imperceptibly, insidiously, leaving us a bit disoriented and unprepared for the challenges before us. There are striking similarities between the responsibilities incumbent upon the adult as parent and the adult as child. For women, whether acting in our roles as mothers or daughters, we just plunge right in and do what needs doing. We feed, we heal, we encourage, we console, we schlep and we embrace. We act out of inertia, conviction and love. But, the distinctions are striking as well. While we readily embrace the role of mother, and all of the wonderful and worrisome responsibilities that come with it, embracing the role of caregiving daughter is a more complicated proposition. Through literature and the media, we all knew that transition from being cared for by parents to caring for them would be bumpy and uncomfortable, and rife with angst. In fact, many of the tasks that adult children assume continue to be lumped into the basket of “just the things I do for my parents” as if admitting to being a caregiver feels too threatening. It can feel like a loss of innocence on steroids. It can feel too permanent. For that reason, many of us trudge through the trenches carrying the responsibilities of our parents’ physical and emotional needs on our backs, without the benefit of the support systems and resources that full-fledged, card-carrying caregivers are entitled to and enjoy.
That’s the first thing….there are many other issues to grapple with as we navigate the confusing, often daunting world of caregiving. ‘It is something that happens in other families, not mine’. ‘It is something that people with limited resources must deal with, not me’. ‘I have always managed my responsibilities well enough, I don’t need help with this’,‘I am overwhelmed at the thought of asking for help’, and ‘Everyone I know has aging parents and they seem to have it figured out…’ The fact is, from the outside looking in, it always seems like others have the answers. Believe me, this is a club whose membership grows exponentially by the day, and for which the questions and challenges exceed any one individual’s ability to find answers. What is true is that, like with any challenge, there is strength in numbers. If you find yourself with a group of like-aged people, take advantage of the chance to share your own frustrations and concerns about your aging parents. If not, make some phone calls, send out some evites and form your own group. Chances are, the floodgates will open and you will find empathy as well as sympathy. Don’t spare the wine, and don’t be afraid to admit that you may be at a loss for what to do. Sometimes, the answers are right in front of you in the form of good listeners and the strength and wisdom of their shared experiences.
Where the discussion leads will depend on the particular group and the circles they travel in. Hopefully though, it will lead to information and support. The vocabulary of eldercare seems to be on everyone’s lips today as most industries have figured out that the demographic trends translate to dollars, whether their product is home care, senior housing or age-friendly technology (often an oxymoron). Finding the right resources can be as confusing and anxiety-provoking as the problems they are supposed to solve. What is most is important is finding personal coping strategies (yes, it is ok to take care of yourself too), someone to help you sort through your needs, and to put together a plan for managing the seemingly overwhelming tasks ahead. Whether this journey leads you to consult a rabbi, a physician or a geriatric care manager, just understanding that you need help and embarking on the journey is half the battle. Armed with your love for your parent and the superhuman strength that navigating the choppy and unchartered waters of motherhood have cultivated in you, you will prevail. Help is out there, and seeking it is a sign of prowess, not weakness.
Judy Trerotola is CJP's director of senior services.