It’s very difficult to think about people that you love growing older

When Those You Looked Up to Look Up to You – It’s very difficult to think about people that you love growing older, developing medical problems, and eventually having difficulty taking care of themselves. You wish that everyone that you cared about would live forever, or at least be perfectly healthy. But, aging is a fact of life. Most couples deal with one or more of their parents becoming unable to take care of themselves. When this happens, most people end up being involved with the care of their parents to some degree. Taking care of your parents is an emotional undertaking. In this chapter, we will help you understand your emo- tions and give you tips on supporting each other through this challenging part of life.

➤ Being aware of your emotions when dealing with aging parents ➤ Supporting your spouse
➤ Redefining your relationship with your parents
➤ Preventing resentments and grudges from playing out

Emotions You May Be Feeling

As your parents or your spouse’s parents get older, they will probably need your help. They will also possibly need professional help with their daily care. The very people whom you depended on in the past will be turning to you for assistance. The fundamental nature of your relationship with your parents will change in a more dramatic way than you have ever experienced. Now you and your spouse will be the caregivers.

Caring for your parents as they get older is often a stressful experience. There are many emotions you might experience along with your new responsibility. When you become the caretaker of your parents, it’s very important for you to be aware of your emotions. It can make the difference between having a meaningful, rewarding experience and having one of the worst experiences of your life. The following sections describe the most common emotions people feel when they are faced with their parents becoming older and less independent.


One of the first things you might feel when facing a parent’s decline in function is— nothing. It’s very common to initially be in denial about a difficult situation. When you are in denial about something, you are trying to convince yourself that it’s not really happening. For instance, imagine that your father, who lives alone, is slowing down and becoming weaker. You want to keep thinking of him as strong and healthy, so you tell yourself that he’s generally fine. In the short run, that makes you feel bet- ter. But, your father probably shouldn’t be living alone. And you won’t be able to help him find a safer place until you are able to acknowledge his limitations. Denial can prevent you from facing facts and making necessary plans.


Another emotion you might feel is anger at your par- ents for being unable to take care of themselves. For example, you might feel that it’s their fault for not staying healthy, even though you know that they are not getting sick on purpose. You might resent the fact that they are taking so much of your time and energy. You are especially vulnerable to feeling anger if your relationship with your parents was less than perfect. It’s more difficult to take care of someone that you feel some resentment toward. But, even if you have a great relationship with your parents, caring for them might feel like a huge burden. It makes sense that you might feel angry because you have been shouldered with a big responsibility.


Even though you are grown up, you might feel like your parents should always be there to take care of you and still help you through difficult times. Seeing your mother or father helpless can make you feel helpless. You might think “If my parents can’t take care of me, who will?” You are your parents’ child, even as an adult. And when one of your parents is weak, part of you is going to feel like a scared, helpless child. Even though you know that you can take care of yourself, you still might feel that you need your parents to take care of you.


Guilt is one of the strongest emotions people feel as a parent becomes older and less able to care for him- or herself. There are many reasons that you might be feeling guilty. You might feel that you are not doing enough to help your parents. This might be true, or you might be doing more than a reasonable amount and feel guilty any- way. You might feel that if you had done something different years ago, then your parent would not be so ill now. For instance, you might think that if you had taken your mother’s complaint about feeling weak and tired more seriously, her cancer would have been diagnosed earlier and she would have been cured.

Marriage Q & A’s

Q: What can I do to help alleviate the financial responsibility that goes along with taking care of an aging parent?

A: One possibility is to talk to the human resources department where you work. Many companies are adding benefits that will help you with the monetary responsibilities of taking care of aging parents.

If one of your parents is very sick and needs a lot of expensive care and a lot of your energy, you might be secretly wishing that he or she would die so that it would be over. This thought would probably cause you to feel incredibly guilty. It’s very com- mon to feel this, and it’s a completely normal reaction. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your sick parent and it doesn’t mean you are a terrible child. It means that it’s very difficult and possibly very expensive to care for an ill person realities that can prompt all kinds of unexpected thoughts and feelings. The best way to deal with these feelings is to acknowledge them but still do as much as you can to care for your parents.

A Sense of Loss

When your parent is no longer functioning at 100 percent, that is a big loss. It’s normal to feel sad, and it’s actually a mature feeling. Feeling sad when your parents are ill and unable to take care of themselves means that you have accepted the situation and the loss that occurs when your parent’s health declines. You shouldn’t hold back tears. Crying is part of feeling sad and it’s okay to express your emotions. That doesn’t mean that you should spend years moping around and crying as your parents become more and more ill. But sadness comes with loss, and you should give yourself permission to feel it.


Parents are the buffer between you and your mortality. Most people are able to ignore the inevitability of their own death as long as their parents are alive and healthy. But as your parent’s health declines, you will probably become highly aware of your own mortality. You might start thinking about the end of your own life or have frequent nightmares about dying. You might start examining where you are in life and reevaluating your long-term goals. When you face the death of someone close to you,
it will often spark thoughts about your own life. This is good, and the way to make use of this constructively is to realize how precious life is and what is really important to you.

Some Things Never Change

Your relationship with your parents has a long and powerful history. As much as you might want some aspects of it to change, that is very unlikely. What can change is your ability to accept your parents the way they are. It will make their final years much better for both of you.

Theresa’s mother always felt that whatever Theresa did wasn’t good enough. As a child, when Theresa would bring home a report card from school with A’s and B’s, her mother would ask why she hadn’t received all A’s. When Theresa excitedly told her mother about her first job, all she said was “You should have asked for a higher salary.” When Theresa’s children were young, her mother always made critical com- ments to her, such as “Why can’t you keep your children from crying?”

Theresa has tried to please her mother all her life. Now, her mother is in her early 80s and really needs Theresa’s help. Theresa felt that this was her final chance to make her mother happy. She turned her life upside down to accommodate her mother. Theresa took a job with flexible hours so she could drive her mother to the doctor. She spent time with her three afternoons a week and did all of her errands for her. But, much to her dismay, her mother still made com- ments, such as “Why didn’t you see me yesterday af- ternoon?” or, “You should have known that I would run out of milk.”

As Theresa’s mother became sicker and weaker, Theresa continued to do more and more for her.
She kept hoping that eventually her mother would appreciate her efforts. Of course, this never happened.

After a particularly upsetting evening with her mother, Theresa returned home in tears. She told her husband, Carlos, that she felt like she was giving her whole life to care for her mother who was still always critical.

Carlos wisely pointed out that Theresa’s mother would never appreciate her no matter what she did. Carlos helped her see that it would be much easier to be with her mother if she realized her mother would never give her the approval she was looking for. She must accept the limitations of their relationship and stop expecting more. Over time, Theresa started accepting her mother the way she was. Theresa was able to help out her mother several times a week, but no longer felt that she needed to sacrifice her own needs to such an extent that she was miserable.

Digging Up the Past

Before you can accept your parents the way they are, you need to identify their short- comings. These questions will help you understand the weaker parts of your relation- ship with your parents.

Look through your answers. If you have resentments toward your parents or are car- rying grudges, try accepting your parents the way they are.

Taking Care of Each Other

Watching a parent decline in health is one of the hardest things in life. You will prob- ably experience many of the emotions that were discussed. There are many ways that you and your spouse can be uniquely helpful to each other. Each of your contribu- tions can make all the difference in the world in both practical and emotional ways.

Marriage Q & A’s

Q: My mother-in-law’s health is starting to decline. How can I help?

A: Pay attention to the health and overall functioning of your parents-in-law. It might be easier for you to see and accept a decline in health in your parent-in-law than it is for your spouse. In turn, your spouse might notice things that you aren’t able to see in your own parents.

Be Supportive

When your spouse is dealing with an aging parent, he or she might be less available to you both physically and emotionally. Your partner might need to visit a nursing home, do errands, and spend more time in general with his or her parent. It’s difficult to give up some time with your spouse, but it’s part of being in a supportive marriage.

Your spouse might be more moody than usual as well. He or she is probably dealing with a lot of the emotions we talked about earlier: anger, helplessness, a sense of loss, a feeling of mortality. These can create very powerful feelings. At times he or she might need to be alone, and at other times he or she might want a shoulder to cry on.

Your partner will also appreciate your help. Offer to take your parent-in-law to the doctor or go gro- cery shopping. If your parent-in-law is in a nursing home, go along on some of the visits. Your spouse will remember your involvement for many years to come.

Don’t Forget Your Relationship

It’s especially important to keep your relationship with each other strong. You might be feeling over- whelmed by time and energy commitments to a parent, but don’t forget each other. Keep doing nice things for each other, treating each other nicely, and spending time together. Even if you cannot spend as much time together as you used to, make every effort to spend at least a reasonable amount of regular time together. You will best be able to support each other if you continue investing in the relationship.

Outside Support

Many couples feel overwhelmed by their emotions when dealing with an aging par- ent. Maybe they were handling things well at first, but over time their marital rela- tionship can really suffer. This is especially true if the situation is long term. This can be a difficult transition, and going outside the relationship for support can be a wise move.

There are several options when looking for outside support. There are many support groups that deal with aging parents. You can contact retirement communities, nurs- ing homes, or religious organizations for information. It can be extremely helpful to be in a room full of people who are all going through the same thing that you are. Being in a support group can help you to feel like you are not alone. The other mem- bers will understand your emotions and will often have practical advice that you might find helpful.

When his father needed to be moved to an assisted-living facility, Ralph felt terrible. He was racked with guilt for not having his father live with them. He was having trouble sleeping and not enjoying the time he was spending with his wife, Linda. One day when he was visiting his father, he saw a notice for a support group on the bulletin board. It took place once a week in the assisted-living facility. He thought he would give it a try.

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Ralph found the group incredibly helpful. The first few times that he went, he just lis- tened to everybody else. He was amazed at how many people had similar feelings.

Finally, he felt brave enough to talk and felt relieved when he was supported by oth- ers. After several months, he noticed that his sleep was improved, he was able to be more objective about his father, and he was better able to enjoy his time with Linda.

Ralph continued going to the group for the three years that his father was in the fa- cility. He felt that the connection with the other people in the group was important. Ralph knew that they would be there for him and he could also be there for them

when they needed support. He also ran into some of the group members when he was visiting his father, which he enjoyed. Linda realized how much the group was helping him, too, and she was grateful to the facility for having the support group available.

For some people, individual therapy is particularly helpful during this time. Childhood issues often come to the surface when you are caring for a parent. Issues that you identified in the earlier quiz, such as not feel- ing appreciated by a parent or feeling a sibling was fa- vored over you, are going to effect how you deal with your parent. Therapy can help you sort out your emo- tions so that you will be better able to care for your parent.

Couples therapy can also be useful, especially if the situation is going to be long term. A therapist will be objective and can help you to make decisions that will affect both of you. If the situation is particularly stressful and is interfering with your mar- riage, this therapy is particularly useful.

The Least You Need to Know

➤  Caring for your parents as they become older is a very emotional time. It’s common to feel angry, helpless, guilty, or sad.

➤  Your past relationship with your parents will impact your current relationship with your aging parents.

➤  As the spouse, your role is very important. You can help tremendously by being objective, praising your spouse, and lending a sympathetic ear.

➤  A support group can be very helpful when you are dealing with an aging parent.