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When A Loved One Can No Longer Care For Themself - 4/4/2011

I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have encountered individuals who have said, “Please write an article on dealing with an elderly parent or loved one who needs to be placed in assisted living or  a nursing home.”  

Unfortunately, it’s a problem that many of you will have to face in the future.  It’s also one of the most emotionally difficult tasks that you will encounter in the course of living your life.  It causes you to feel tremendous guilt, to have feelings of selfishness and thoughts that you’re an uncaring person.  None of which is palatable, but all of which are difficult, if not impossible to avoid.  It will result in you questioning your allegiance to parents you claim you love and to doubt the goodness of your own being, in light of the fact that you didn’t say, “Come live with us.  You don’t have to go to an old age home.”  Instead, you heard yourself rationalizing, “It’ll affect my kids’ routine?  We don’t have sufficient room for them.  My spouse and mother or father don’t get along”, etc..All in an attempt to ease your guilty conscience.  

More importantly, it brings you in touch with your own mortality, which causes you to question, “Who should care for the elderly?”  Then you realize you’re probably approaching being “elderly” and may one day need someone to care for you.   That being the case, before you can rationally deal with your parents situation, you have to deal with your fears and the fact that you’re mortal.  Perhaps it would help if you could verbally utter the words “die”, “death”, “terminal”, “end of your life” a sufficient number of times to desensitize you to the emotions attached to them.  These words may initially sound harsh, but that’s because they force you to face you.  But see you, you must, rather than hear yourself say, “I never thought I was getting old until I had trouble recalling certain words, people’s names and where certain streets are.  Then, I worry maybe I’m getting Alzheimer’s, or is it just Old-timers?”    Others of you realized old age was approaching because you started  seeing doctors all the time.  Whichever, you need to recognize that elderly care is an issue you will eventually have to deal with, or someone who loves you will have to face regarding you.  

I’m sure many of you have thought, “The last thing I ever want to do is be a burden to my children and  have them resent caring for me.”  But, as you get older, many of you forget that statement, because you’re frightened of being put in a permanent care facility to wait to die.  Perhaps it would help to view the act of dying as a part of living.  Most cultures make it a cultural experience shared by every member of the family from early age on.  In the United States, however, people tend to deny death until it’s thrust upon them.  Then, they delegate the problem to  assisted living, hospices and funeral homes.  They want others to take care of the problem for them.  But, institutions can’t make a decision regarding care for your parents.  It rests on your shoulders alone.  Part of the problem you face is that you also view “checking into” an institution” as a prelude to dying.  But, what if you could alter that perception to “checking someone in to live for the rest of their life?”  I’m not sure if that would help to mitigate your guilt, but I know it would mine.  

Unfortunately, in the majority of old age facilities, residents are bored, lonely and depressed.   It’s no wonder you feel guilty putting someone there. Once again, if you alter your goal to helping a loved one to recognize that they still have life to live, checking them in won’t mean their life is over.  But, until you’re able change that viewpoint, placing someone in a nursing home will continue to constitute a heinous, selfish act that is bound to cause you tremendous stress.  

This new orientation assumes that, no matter how bad  an individual is physically, there is an emotional individual inside who continues to live life.   One who can still experience joys and pleasures, by virtue of what occurs around them and to them.  That means there are meaningful things you can do for them.  You can help those who can no longer see to enjoy reading, by making books on tape available.  You can also provide them with intellectual stimulation through other modalities that still function.  To do so requires you to recognize that, above all else, the basic needs for touch and feel still exist within elderly persons and you can satisfy these needs.  Not by  just  going to visit and asking, “How do you feel?”, but by touching, telling and sharing, all of which constitute loving involvement.  Even if the person is incapable of sharing verbally, they can still take joy from a massage, pedicure or manicure.  They can listen to music they used to enjoy, instead of watching the same inane reality programs on television.   You need to see that, although a person is in some form of assisted living, you can still tend to their feelings of well being, with the emphasis being on well, not just tending to their ills and sickness.  You can ask them to create a history of their life, their childhood and their remembrances.  Their accounts can then be videotaped or recorded.  It will give them something meaningful to be involved with and provide lasting memories you and your children can cherish throughout the rest of your lives.

Lastly, I’d have you realize that listening is essential.  You’d be amazed how important it can be.  It is the cornerstone of all psychological treatment.  Leonard, in 2005, wrote, “The need to be listened to is never outgrown.  Being listened to allows...our experiences to count and ourselves to matter.  Being listened to is not an optional experience, it sustains us throughout the life cycle, up until the very end.”  Think about that.  This need is one you can meet by just lending an ear.  Furthermore, knowing that you provided warmth and comfort by being there, touching, listening and caring will mitigate much of the guilt you may feel.  Remember, you can’t substitute a TV for a person, or time spent just being there by time spent caring.  Better 30 minutes of loving involvement three times a week than two to three hours a day out of obligation and responsibility.  

Placing someone in a facility designed to care for the elderly needn’t be and shouldn’t be a selfish or guilt-provoking action.   It can be your way of doing what’s best for you, your family and your parent, as long as you remember that there’s a living person inside them, whether they can overtly demonstrate it or not.  So, spend whatever time you can with them, only out of love instead of obligation.  It’s easier if you remember that: one, a person doesn’t have to die before their time.  Two, internal life continues, whether it’s apparent to us or not.  Three, there are still feelings, emotions and thoughts going on in a person’s mind, even though they can’t demonstrate or share them overtly.  Four, there are certain joys and pleasures that you can supply, which they can still appreciate, once you get over your guilt and your fears concerning your own mortality.

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