In today’s society, healthy grandparents are a great resource for their children and grandchildren in many cases. They replace the babysitter, accompany their grandchildren to school or play sports, help with their homework, and, increasingly, give their financial support when it is needed.
But as the years go by, things can change, and many “middle-aged” women and men face a difficult challenge: on the one hand, parenting their children and on the other parenting their parents. A condition that unites more and more people, who every day try to find solutions that are as “stable” as possible (and above all a bit of serenity).
How to take care of elderly parents
Learning to take care of those who used to take care of us is not a joke, and we do not invent ourselves in this role. It is the challenge men and women face who are simultaneously involved on two difficult “fronts,” such as caring for an elderly parent and looking after a child or more children growing up. A challenge (very often all-female) leads people to become parents of their parents, moving like acrobats between home, children, work, doctors, and paperwork to access care.
A “NEW” FAMILY
It also happens that the disease of an elderly parent occurs at a particular stage in the life of a child, for example, in the developmental age or during adolescence: being able to satisfy needs and give the same attention to both requires a new “relational structure” within the family. It is not easy for the elderly person to accept old age, especially if he has always been independent and helpful for others in his life. Often the elderly show two types of growing needs: the need for physical dependence (depending on their health conditions) and the need to maintain an adult identity (need for autonomy).
The conflict between these two needs profoundly marks the meaning of the relationships between parents and children. Elderly parents have to develop the idea of having to depend on their children, and these, in turn, have to think about taking on less and less autonomous parents. This new event puts the whole family system to the test. The elderly person who is not self-sufficient goes to live with their child, so it is necessary to create a space for the new guest in the family, redefining the house’s structure, for example, giving a room to the sick parent, and sacrificing space for the children. This new redefinition can inconvenience the “new family,” so we must mediate with all the members present.
THE DIFFERENT PHASES OF LIFE
There are no rare cases in which everything happens simultaneously. Therefore, for example, a woman discovers that she is expecting a baby and at the same time discovers the disease of a parent, thus passing from joyful news to an extremely sad one. Which emotion prevails? How to rejoice in the life that is being born within us without feeling guilty for the one that is ending?
As absurd and difficult as it sounds, once one is aware of a parent’s illness, one should share joyful moments with them as much as possible. Involving them in the decisions to be made about, for example, organizing a wedding, a birth, or a communion of a grandchild could give them the idea that they are still useful. Considering their opinions and their advice on what to do is helpful for the parent who feels important while not being able to leave the house, for example, and for the child who still feels they can enjoy the parent’s help and attention.
ACCEPTING EXTERNAL HELP
At first, the idea of getting help from someone “outside the family” is not even taken into consideration because it is experienced as a sort of “discharge” of responsibilities and above all. After all, you are convinced you can do it alone. But accepting help does not mean abandoning one’s parent: help is a resource within the family. Those who do not accept it are forced to sacrifice their lives, commitments, and children, thus creating great discomfort within the new family system.
An accumulation of tensions could arise that the family can no longer bear. Therefore, resorting to external help, such as a caregiver at certain times of the day, can help change daily life. The “sense of duty” towards one’s sick parent must not prevail over our lives because we risk neglecting the children and the partner, creating inconvenience.
THE SENSE OF GUILT MUST BE OVERCOME
When the need to take care of the parents arises, the woman instinctively volunteers, but at a certain point. She feels the full weight of it and triggers the desire for a bit of freedom to catch her breath, except then having to deal with the sense of guilt for having thought of loved ones as a burden too great to bear. If we cannot accept the idea that the elderly need us and live with him becomes a burden, bringing problems even within the family.
It might be appropriate to consider bringing the elderly to a day facility (day center, neighborhood house, etc.) or competent residential (served residence, retirement home, protected residence, etc.) where it can be cared for with adequate care. This does not mean abandoning your loved one: many well-organized structures involve family members and relatives, trying to integrate them as much as possible within the structure and in the life of the elderly.
In some cases, this physical detachment helps to rebalance relationships with the elderly and the whole family: physical detachment is not an emotional detachment. Going to visit them often, looking for a structure not far from home, being present in their life by inviting them home whenever possible, is a way of looking after your loved one that allows us not to be assailed by feelings of guilt.
AND THE OTHER MEMBERS OF THE FAMILY
China recently passed a new law requiring adult children to visit their parents “frequently.” The measure was born following the fact that the Chinese population is aging rapidly due to the one-child policy. Research shows that daughters provide the most care – especially in terms of direct care – to parents. Much depends on work commitments and the relationship one has between siblings and with the same parents.
However, sharing the care of loved ones is fundamental: for example, some can offer daily assistance by hosting the elderly parent in their home, those who can accompany them to certain places (for example, to the doctor), and those who can take care of the expenses, giving an economical and not very physical contribution. The important thing is that everyone does their part, also because in this way they can share the sorrow and worries for their parents.
After all, taking care of your sick, elderly parent certainly strengthens a relationship that leaves more time to find each other before ending. But these positive aspects can only expand if the burden of care for the elderly who loses autonomy is shared extensively and substantially by the “social community” in all its medical, welfare, psychological, and social aspects. In a “solitary management” of such a complex situation, too much love and too many feelings of guilt towards those you love otherwise risk calling into question all the balances. It has been laboriously constructed in life (and of getting sick, as unfortunately happens more and more often).