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The Realities of Caring for Aging Parents

As mom and dad get older, your help may be more needed, but not always wanted. Sonima's psychologist offers advice on how to face the challenges of elderly care with lots of compassion.

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Dear John,

How do I rationalize with aging parents who need my help, but, at the same time, refuse it? I know they are simply grasping for control of their lives, but the truth is, it’s getting harder for them to manage health and finances on their own. How do I get involved without constantly fighting over power?

Trying to Be a Good Daughter

Dear Good Daughter,

I cannot imagine the difficulty of this process for you! One of life’s great challenges is grappling with the important and inevitable human journey of one’s parents transitioning to the late stages of life.

My immediate thought in reading your question is that, at some point, you may have to seek professional support should your parents eventually reach a place where they are not able to care for themselves—in terms of their health (physical, psychological, and spiritual) and financial well-being. I encourage you to consider seeking a local specialist in psychology who concentrates on geriatrics and neuropsychology to help you determine the next steps should you become concerned that your parents’ resistance in receiving help is compromising their overall well-being and safety.

This is the inherent human journey of confronting the inevitable fact of impermanence. It is my hope that through this process of self-examination that you will find a true way to talk with your parents about your emotional experience. Connecting with your own heart will increase the likelihood that you will be able to connect with theirs, which can lead to more satisfying discussions and outcomes for your family.

We, as beings, are destined to experience loss—the loss of loved ones, relationships, cherished possessions, etc. We must be willing to undertake the psychological journey of grieving. I once read a poignant quote from 13th century German theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart, “Everything is meant to be lost that the soul may stand in unhampered nothingness.” I believe that when are able to stand in a space of nothingness, we can then have clarity about how to cross over the threshold and move toward the other side of loss, which is a creation process.

In moving through a healthy grieving process, we can find ourselves at a point of rebirth—an opportunity to step forward in life with greater strength and maturity and discover that we have become a more seasoned and complete person. This is hard work that takes time and dedication to feeling. It is not a process that cannot be skipped over if we want to continue to develop and grow toward our full potential.

The process of grieving aging parents centers on numerous dimensions of loss, such as the loss of the relationship as it once was (for better or worse), their waning physical and functional abilities, as well as a naturally occurring loss of various cognitive abilities, among other essential factors that I do not have the space to discuss here.


Related: A Celebration of the Unrecognized Caregivers Among Us


It is important to bear in mind that even when changes may be subtler, a change of any kind needs acknowledgement and requires some amount of psychological adjustment. One way to grapple with impermanence, as described by the teacher Anam Thubten is to practice Embodied Attention.

The Buddha taught that we must be able to make an objective, deep inquiry into all things. This process ought to occur free from any mental filters, past conditioning, our natural human trepidations, and our tendency to struggle against what is. We have to learn to be able to set those aside. As best as we can, we need to learn to sit with our experiences in life as they are (not how we wish they were) and notice how they flow through us with respect to our mind, body, emotions, and spirit.

Meditation is a process of becoming more intimate with ourselves and how we tend to react to our lives. Through this process, we can shift out of our tendency to operate in automatic mode and begin to make more authentic life choices. We must be able to move into our pains and sorrow to come into a liberated relationship with reality. As human beings, we are not given a choice in acknowledging that life has many life stages: birth, death, and many others in between. Our sacred practice is to come to a place of equanimity with the inevitable impermanence of life.

Let us now take a few moments for a brief meditation practice that you may utilize to gain insight into your process.

 

A Meditation for the Children of Aging Parents

 

When you are ready to try this meditation, move to a place that is free from distractions. Put all devices on silent and take a seat in a safe and comfortable spot, where you will not be disturbed by anyone or anything.

You may take a few moments to settle into your seat, whether that is in a chair, on the floor, standing or laying down. You can support yourself in settling by feeling for the connection of your seat to the earth (the chair or ground). If needed for comfort, sit on a pillow or rolled blanket to ensure you can sit with the spine lengthened. Aim to feel for a sense of your upper body continuously lifting and not hunching, keeping the shoulders relaxed to let the space around the heart be open. With your chin parallel to the earth, if seated, let the muscles of the face relax and the jaw to be “unhinged” a bit so that you are not clenching or gripping the teeth. Here, continuously create a soft, gentle lift through the crown of your head.

When you are ready, place one or both of your hands on your heart, and take a few breaths. If it resonates with you, you may set an intention to acknowledge all that needs to be seen, felt, and heard in this process. When you are ready, ask yourself, What do I need most right now to guide me in this process with my parents?

Here, in this quiet space, what are the sensations in your body? If you move your awareness toward them, what is revealed to you? Examine any images that arise in the mind’s eye. What would be a few feeling words that accurately put to language these emotions and sensations? See if you can move even further into these emotions and notice in a subtle way how your energy may have shifted because of this material arising. Take a few mental notes of what your experience is. You may conclude this practice by asking your heart, What is one simple and clear step that I can take to move me a bit further in this process?

In closing out this meditation, please take a moment to send love and kindness to yourself and your parents:

May I come to experience peace in this process
May I continue to love myself
May I continue to offer self-kindness and compassion to myself
May I be at peace with any and all worries and fears in this process
May I be at peace with any amount of grief and sorrow I experience
May I be free from suffering*
May my parents come to experience peace in this process
May my parents continue to be embraced by the energy of love
May my parents feel and offer self-kindness and compassion to themselves and each other
May they be at peace with any and all worries and fears in this process
May they be at peace with any amount of grief and sorrow they experience
May they be free from suffering

 

To close the meditation, take a nice, long, full breath in through the nose and let it out through the mouth, letting out a deep sigh. If you feel inclined to do so, spend a few moments journaling about your meditation and any insights that may have arisen. This is a meditation that you can come back to time and time again to deepen your awareness and insight process.

*I find it necessary to clarify that the statement “free from suffering” is not intended to mean that we attempt to “do away with suffering” or somehow “go around it.” It is more about making a psychological effort to embrace all elements of suffering and move through it to reach a place of authentic liberation as we become the boundless human beings that we already are. This is a process of awakening that takes tremendous psycho-spiritual work and development, and, not to mention, incredible amounts of courage and love. My prayer is that we all achieve this level of development.

Many blessings,
John

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