Once you've adopted this firefighting mentality about your parent's needs, you'll need a whole new set of strategies like the ones below to deal with the emotional wreckage that piles up along the way.
Surrender to the emotional grinder.
"The thing that galls me most about caring for my mother," one woman told me, "is that she's the only one who gets a morphine drip." The emotional pain suffered by caregivers is intense—and unlike the elderly, caregivers are expected to live through it. With every new issue your elderly relative develops, you'll head into the emotional grinder called the grief process: bargaining, anger, sadness, acceptance, repeat.
Grieving, like physical caretaking, differs from case to case. If you had a troubled relationship with an aging parent, expect to spend lots of time in the anger stage. Use this time to clean your emotional closet. Explore the anger with a therapist. Journal it. Process it with friends. Clean the wounds.
On the other hand, if your declining parent was your main source of emotional support, you'll find yourself spending lots of time in sadness. You'll feel as though it's killing you. It won't. As Naomi Shihab Nye wrote, "Before you know kindness / as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow / as the other deepest thing.... / Then it is only kindness / that makes sense anymore...."
As the grieving process scrapes along, you'll learn to offer kindness to everyone: your aging relative, the people of your village, yourself. When you snap under stress and begin to rail at Nana, God, yourself, and the cat, you'll learn to be kind to yourself anyway. At that point, you'll find relief and an unexpected gift: laughter.
Nourish a sick sense of humor.
A morbid sense of humor isn't listed in any official guides to eldercare, but to the caregivers I interviewed, it is like oxygen. Take, for example, Meg Federico's memoir Welcome to the Departure Lounge. Federico's wry portrayal of her mother's senescence is both sad and hilarious. Without belittling her mother or her stepfather, Walter, both of whom suffered dementia, Federico recounts conversations like this one:
"I can't seem to find my keys," Walter told Mom. "Say, do you have them?"
"Oh, don't worry about keys, dearest. We don't need them. We can jump out the window and fly home."
"What?" said Walter. "You can fly? I never knew."
"So can you, but you have to take your shoes off."
To Walter's credit, he was not convinced.
Just acknowledging that this is funny makes it tolerable. Cracking up can keep caregivers from, well, cracking up.
"Bill and I are training his dad to 'go toward the light,'" said my friend Anne, whose father-in-law no longer recognizes his family. "Any light we see—lamps, flashlights, the TV—we steer him over there. We figure he can use the practice."
Of course, Anne isn't serious. Not being serious is how she and Bill are surviving. If you can't train your elder to go toward the light, you can make light of the situation. And sometimes, that light becomes splendiferous.
Ponder the nature of existence.
There's nothing like caring for the elderly to help you face your own mortality. Many caregivers told me that their experience was dissolving, through simple drudgery, their fear of death. Pulitzer Prize–winning psychologist Ernest Becker wrote that the denial of death underlies all evils, and that we must drop this denial to live fully. The caregivers I interviewed would agree.
"Fear of death was my biggest obstacle in life," said Polly. "To help my dad, I have to get past it. He's showing me how to die, which is really helping me live."
Other caregivers went further. They said that as they watched the door close on their loved one's physical identity, a door to the metaphysical slowly opened.
"I don't believe in an afterlife, but as my mother died, I truly understood that being dead is no more frightening than being asleep, which I love."
"As my husband's body was failing, he became almost translucent. I went right through my own pain and felt the most intense peace. I can still find that."
"Just before my grandmother died in surgery, I heard her voice saying, 'I'm leaving now, but you'll be fine.' I've been less anxious about everything ever since."
This is why traditional cultures value even the most fragile, disoriented elder, why the Navajo carry "Grandmother's bones" with such reverent attention. Even as you grapple with the logistical and psychological stress of eldercare, there will be moments when you find yourself on the "blessing path." Rather than a long day's journey into night, you'll feel yourself making a long night's journey into day: through fear and confusion to courage and wisdom. Receive this gift, the final one your parents can offer before they take off their shoes, jump out the window, and fly home.
Martha Beck is the author of six books. Her most recent is Steering by Starlight (Rodale).