How Do We Cope?
I ended my last piece with several questions regarding having an elderly parent. One being, How do we cope? Similar to grief, there is no one or right way to cope with the inevitable things that come with the aging process. But how we learn to personally cope with and react to an aging parent is key for a peaceful journey together.
Watching a parent or grandparent physically and/or mentally decline is tough. It is startling when they start to loose their balance and experience falls. My mom is a faller by nature. The first time my mother fell with me was when she was in her early 70's while we were at the mall with my kids in tow. She has also fallen at bookclub, in Europe with friends, alone, standing next to my brother, and in the presence of a caregiver. She has been falling for years and only by the grace of God, has not broken any bones or been seriously injured.
It is challenging when an elderly individual starts to repeat heself or becomes forgetful. If my mom has told me the stories about her treasured estate sale finds from the past once, she has told me a hundred times. If she forgets she has eaten a meal, well it simply isn't true. Her forgetfulness comes with the territory of having late on-set dementia with short term memory loss. If she calls me in a mood complaining about anything or everything, how I react to her call can either set us sailing into a wonderful conversation or get us stuck in a deep dark hole.
How about guiding a loved one to stop driving? It isn't an easy subject to introduce or be accepted. My mom drove until she was 84. There comes a point when gently taking the keys away from someone is necessary. But with this, we need to understand we are stripping away a vital part of their independence. Sometimes, driving is the last thing they have to cling on to as they themselves are learning to accept their new stage of life. And what about trying to create or find the perfect living environment for a loved one either at home or in a senior living community? This could be as rare as scoring a perfect 36 on the ACT test. The possibility of all the members of your family being on the same page to decide what is best for your parent and how things should be done? At times, this can be like a book club where everyone reads at a different pace and level of understanding. While one member might love the book, another will only like it, and others may hate the book or not read it at all!
So, how have I coped with my mom's aging? First, I have gotten out of my head and into my heart. This hasn't happened overnight. I have practiced to retrain myself on how I respond and react to her aging rather than expecting her to change. I have learned to be patient over and over and over again. I accept what is and who she is. I am not directing her path but am walking by her side. When she wants to again show or tell me about the things she bought at Mr. Carter's estate sale many years ago, I listen with a keen ear. The stories she repeatedly tells are ones that are important to her from joyful moments in her life and surprisingly, I learn something new each time she tells one. If she is in a forgetful mood and needs to be reminded about something, I respond more gently and tell myself that I may some day get there too and hope my kids are patient with me. If she is having a bad day and complains about something or someone, I listen and let it go because I too have bad days and know these too shall pass. I have learned that in some instances it is better for me to just be present and quiet while she talks things out, instead of me responding at all. Sometimes it helps to just be. In my experience, coping with an elderly parent is much like my grief. It changes by the day, week, year, and decade. It can be painful but lightens in time.
There is one short exchange of words between my mom and I that keeps coming up which I think best describes how we are coping with this season of life. They are simple and true to the core. At the end of many of our conversations and visits, my mom looks into my eyes as she steadies herself with her cane and says to me, "I am doing the best I can." And I return the gaze and whisper, "So am I mom. So am I."