Helping an aging parent may surface various emotions—some that can be enjoyable and rewarding, and others that can be painful or difficult to manage. When I met with one of my clients, Cynthia*, this is exactly what she wanted to talk with me about: how to deal with the myriad of emotions she is experiencing as her mother ages.
Cynthia is a 49-year-old single mom of two teenage boys. She is also the primary caregiver for her 83-year-old mom, who had a mild stroke about a year ago. Even before the stroke, her mother was struggling with some physical limitations, including vision issues caused by macular degeneration. Cynthia has a sister, but she is lives in England, so isn’t readily available to help out.
When Cynthia and I talked, she told me that she is struggling with some difficult feelings. She feels guilty because her mom moved into a retirement residence and Cynthia thinks she should have encouraged her mother to move in with her and her sons. She also feels a sense of resentment that her mother has needed so much help in the last few years, as Cynthia is already stretched thin as a single parent. Adding to that, she feels stressed and anxious about balancing her career, all the responsibilities of running a household, and the number of people who rely on her. There are many nights when she has trouble sleeping because her to-do list is running through her head. On top of it all, she knows her mother won’t be with her forever, and she is already beginning to feel some grief.
Although there is some stress involved for caregiving for her mother, Cynthia also described the satisfying parts of supporting her mom. She smiled as she told me that time seems to slow down when she is with her mother. Cynthia says she feels great love and compassion for her mom as she watches her work so hard to regain what she lost from the stroke.
It’s important to note that the myriad of emotions that Cynthia is experiencing as a caregiver is very common, and also very challenging. Emotions are messy: we rarely experience just one emotion about a situation, and some are uncomfortable to feel and manage.
I shared with Cynthia something I’ve shared with countless people who are helping their parents: that the first step in managing conflicting emotions is recognizing they are simply part of the human experience. I often ask people to think about their emotions like a pie with many different sized pieces. They might have a large piece of guilt, a small piece of resentment, and a medium-sized piece of joy. All these emotions can co-exist, and all are normal; it is what we do with them that matters.
The best way to begin managing challenging emotions is to see if you can determine what might be causing you to feel that emotion. For example, I asked Cynthia to tell me more about the resentment that she is feeling. She told me she resented that her sister moved away, leaving her to manage her mother’s care by herself. When we assessed what Cynthia did to support her mother, we realized some of it could actually be done remotely by her sister in England—like helping their mother schedule doctor’s appointments and managing her finances online. In addition to these tasks, Cynthia also asked her sister to make a daily phone call to their mom to check in and “have a chat.” Just having those few things removed from her to-do list is beginning to help Cynthia feel less burdened and less resentful.
Not every challenging emotion can be prevented or the cause removed. We may also need to get emotional support to better manage our feelings. Having a regularly-scheduled coffee with a good friend who will truly listen to us, attending a support group, or possibly seeking professional help can all make the difference in our ability to handle our tougher emotions. In addition, many of us may simply need more regularly-scheduled breaks from our caregiving responsibilities.
If you, like Cynthia, are feeling challenged by difficult emotions, try what worked for her. First acknowledge that all emotions—both the easy and the difficult ones— are all normal parts of the caregiving journey. Then identify the tougher emotions and notice what seems to bring them on. Prevent those that can be prevented (you may need a friend to help you figure that out), and then seek support for the more difficult ones. In this way you, too, can start experiencing more of the positive emotions such as compassion, love, and even joy, and less of those harder emotions.
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.