The Life Transition Blog

You Can’t Fix It As Your Aging Parent’s Caregiver

If you are like most baby boomers, you're busy, busy, busy! Whether you do it with a PDA, a scratch pad and pencil, or all in your head, you're a list-making creature. With so many balls in the air, you don't want one to crash back down. You feel immense pleasure when you accomplish something and can cross it off that list. Your orientation is to "fix it", isn't it? Unfortunately, if you're the caregiver for an aging parent, you can't "fix it". Your parent's death is inevitable, and no checklist, no matter how well you accomplish all the tasks on it, will prevent that day from coming. Indeed, your aging parent is going through a natural process, and you can't make everything okay. All you can do is smooth that natural process through paying attention to your parent's needs. You don't have to have all the answers, and you'll probably never feel like you have all of the information you'd like, but you can still make good decisions.

The day you stop looking at your caregiver role as Ms. (or Mr.) Fixit is the first day of the rest of YOUR life. The next time you have a caregiving challenge, stop for a moment and think about the situation. What does your parent need? Are you sure this is what she needs, or are you making an assumption or projecting your own needs onto the situation? If you're sure about the need, then what are the possible ways to fill it? Is there really only the one way, the way that seems impossible right now and has you (and your Dad) so frustrated?

Let's take the situation of Lisa and her Dad, John. Lisa is in her mid-50s, is married, and has one teenager still at home and two in college. Lisa works full time outside the home. John lives about an hour away from Lisa and her family in a condo he owns. John is in his mid-80s and was widowed two years ago. Lisa's younger brother lives across the country. John's in pretty good health, but he's become increasingly frail over the past six months and seems to have lost a lot of weight. Lisa is worried about her Dad, but with her other responsibilities, it's hard for her to get to John's home more than once per week.

Over the past week or two, Lisa has concluded that John is not eating well and that's the cause of his weight loss. Every time she visits, she brings a load of groceries and meals she's cooked at home. Ms. Fixit to the rescue! Yet, on subsequent visits, the food is pretty much right where Lisa left it. She's frustrated because, "no matter what I do, Dad won't eat." When she begs him to eat, John gets angry and tells Lisa that he's just not hungry. The situation escalates, and ends with Lisa storming out of John's home in tears.

What if Lisa had stopped for a moment before her Ms. Fixit instincts kicked in? Instead of jumping right in to fix what she saw as a "problem", Lisa might have talked with John about how he was doing. Had she done so, she would have learned that John was very worried about his finances. He was afraid that he was going to outlive his money, and as a result, John had decided that he could get by on less. The last thing that John wanted was to be a burden on Lisa and her brother. So when Lisa starting bringing food to John, he felt guilty because exactly what he feared seemed to be coming true. He felt that if he didn't eat much of the food that Lisa brought, maybe she'd stop brining it, and he would find his way out of this cycle.

Had Lisa just asked the right questions and really listened to John's answers, she might have come up with another way to solve the problem. In any event, by allowing John to participate in the solution, she would have allowed him to preserve some of his independence and feel more in control of his situation. And Lisa herself likely would have felt less stressed and less frustrated. Of course, it's possible that John wouldn't have shared his fear with Lisa directly, but Lisa might have included John in identifying the problem and trying to solve it. Even if that approach failed, maybe Lisa could have arranged for some of John's friends to invite him over for dinner so that he would have the social interaction and not feel like a burden.

As the caregiver for your aging parent, you have many choices and decisions to make, and the sheer volume of what needs to be done can be overwhelming. To the extent that you can remember that it is not your job to fix everything, you and your care recipient will both be better off. Your job is to make the natural progression of aging easier for your parent, but as hard as you try, you won't be able to stop it. Once you can acknowledge and accept this reality, it will be easier to keep things in perspective. Your job is to do your best, and to do it with positive intentions.
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