A Labour of love and loss: How to cope with caring for an elderly relative

Caring for an elderly parent is one of life’s most difficult and emotionally draining experiences. It’s a complex role reversal that can leave you feeling exhausted, doubtful, resentful, guilty and helpless all at once. Having someone you have loved and admired your whole life suddenly become heavily reliant on you can be a huge adjustment. I know because I’ve been there.

My parents opted for a retirement sea change and we lived in different states. From the moment Mum was diagnosed with dementia, Dad worked tirelessly to look after her. When she had a fall resulting in a broken hip, everything changed. While in hospital it became apparent that Mum could not return home and she had to enter residential care in Melbourne.  I visited my mum at the aged care facility every day – feeding her, holding her hand and just generally keeping her company. The journey of leaving a very private and proud woman in the care of people who were not her family was torturous for me. It also devastated me to see my father heartbroken as he experienced the loss of the life he had become accustomed to.

Prior to Mum’s fall, I tried on numerous occasions to broach the subject of assisted living but the conversation went nowhere. Many elderly people have a fear of moving into care or assisted living, away from their familiar surroundings. Others don’t want a strange carer in their home and are too stubborn to allow a cleaner past the front door. As devoted children, we try our best to provide support and care, driven by love and a sense of duty.

When my mother was ill, I just needed someone to talk to, a safe place to vent and ramble and cry. At first I would talk to my friends, but as the years rolled on and nothing about the situation changed, I felt guilty burdening them with the same information. “How is your Mum?” they would ask.  “Not well”, I’d say. “How are your coping?” Cue me bursting into tears. Doesn’t exactly make for a fun girls’ night now does it?

Mum and I enjoying Christmas together before she passed away. I cherish these memories.

​Here are some things I learned on my journey that I hope will help others in the same situation.

  1. Don’t be too proud to ask for help and don’t assume you won’t get help if you ask.  Sometimes you feel slighted as the sibling taking on the lion’s share of the care, you want family members  to offer to help without you having to ask.  That’s probably not going to happen so challenge yourself and come up with a communication strategy that works.
  2. It’s ok to feel resentful and angry from time to time. They are normal emotions given the situation. It’s ok to get snappy and annoyed too, you’re human and you’re dealing with a lot.
  3. Use those great planning skills you have and find time for yourself no matter how difficult it is to organise. Treat yourself to family dinners out where you don’t have to cook, go to the movies and indulge occasionally in my personal favourite, a massage. You need space to rejuvenate and take a breath.
  4. Accept and enjoy your parent as they are today and don’t try and fix them or bring them into your world. The best gift you can give them is just enjoying a moment with them, holding hands or giggling at something silly.
  5. Don’t bottle things up. You need to talk, so find someone independent to talk to. Whether it’s a psychologist, counsellor or a helpline, reach out. Prioritise your mental health and make it an essential part of your care routine.

In the final years of my Mum’s life, she didn’t know my name but she knew something about me was warm, loving and familiar. We spent hours just holding hands and cuddling and I really miss those times. Caring for an elderly parent can be all-consuming but you cannot give what you don’t have so please consider the tips above and, if you need some independent support, I would love to accompany you on your journey.

You can view information on my confidential counselling services here.

Read about the benefits of online counselling here.

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