Helping aging parents who just "don't want to be a bother"
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
"...as we recognise others' suffering and realise we are not alone, our pain is lessened...[but] This was quite different from what the Dalai Lama was doing. He was not contrasting his situation with others, but uniting his situation with others...seeing that he and...[others are]...not alone in their suffering." (The Book of Joy, Archbishop Tutu & The Dalai Lama)
I am hoping that my dad will be discharged from hospital this week (having been in since December 15th 2020, and overcoming covid caught nosocomially). I have nothing but praise and gratitude for the medical teams who looked after him so well, and know what I can do to support his recovery and health moving forward. I am also hugely grateful to his old friends who have been keeping his spirits up all the way from Malaysia (even if I had to explicitly state the time difference on a few occasions, and further express - as kindly as I could - that if it was 5am at the hospital, it was also going to be 5am in my house.) But I say that with compassion, as I know they are simply showing their concern.
However, a source of support I was not banking on came from my friends - of course offered in the conventional way, they are wonderful people - but in their expression of their own encounters:
"I rang my mum at Christmas and she wished me happy birthday."
"My aunt had a fall, and the "little bit of pain" turned out to be 2 broken vertebrae"
"My mum said she was fine until I found out it was dengue fever after a routine blood test."
"My mum didn't get her asthma inhaler replaced for weeks because she 'didn't want to bother anyone'."
...are the tip of the iceberg of experiences I heard after answering "how's your dad" - with "how're your folks?"
My cousin's WhatsApp bemoaned it in a nutshell they "...tend to keep their problems to themselves."
I don't want to bother...
Whether parents think we have "enough on our plate"; or need to "get on with our lives and not worry about them"; or actually that they "really are fine and it's just a cough" (until it's not)...or perhaps there's a deeper rooted sense of protection of pride that they don't want their children to be looking after them, especially if the care is personal or for us to see them vulnerable - but what seems to be a little secret of my generation (35-50) is that we really want to be responsive to our parents' needs but sometimes things are hidden until we have no choice but to be reactive! It is no wonder my cousin followed up his message with "look after yourself." (It's ok - I wrote 3 books...and the exercises really work, believe me!)
Standard things to consider with elderly parents:
- Basic administration
While it is incredibly difficult to think about these things as a son or daughter, it may be helpful to know the basics of their current situation and discuss things such as power of attorney, or management of their affairs should anything unexpected occur.
- Basic needs
These can be being aware of things such as diet, exercise, and basic mental health such as - are they still connected with friends (especially in lockdown). The failure of wifi for example can have a huge impact.
- GP appointments/medications/transport
Being aware of their medical history - simply asking about appointments, or sometimes even giving them a list of questions to ask the doctor can help to avoid mixed messages. Making sure they are attending appointments with adequate facilities to do so - whether this means you drive or arrange the transport yourself. Have a list of what they are taking, in case you are asked at any point.
- Alterations/extra help available
Medical needs can also change, and having a familiarity with the support that is available and what they might find useful in future can be helpful - even if not immediately required. Be mindful of purchasing equipment that challenges their view of independence, 90-year olds sometimes push back against a walking frame because it "makes them look old". Don't splash out on the latest gadget until they have accepted that the modification to their lifestyle really does make it much more comfortable!
- See if using broader practical/medical explanations help the discussion
If your loved one has a health concern that worries you, perhaps taking a broader approach eg "I saw a recent campaign which said that x symptom might be y..." rather than "I'm really worried about your x symptom, you must get it checked."...the latter can feel like nagging - with the former, there's a chance that they might decide it's their idea. This is difficult of course though, as I fully understand that you often will be very worried...probably because you only found out after they had been living with it for a while.
Things to consider for your own wellbeing
- You are NOT a "bad" son or daughter if you didn't know
Despite well-meaning people reminding you to "take care of your mum/dad/nan/gramps..." an independent parent is often a stubborn one who has their pride. You are walking that tight-rope between being there when you need to be - and not having them push you away for "nagging" (nor frustrating yourself and your relationship with them through it). If you don't live with them (often because they don't want you to!!...and heaven forfend that they come to live with you!) checking in, be aware of changes, perhaps - pandemic permitting - making time to see them, or even dropping in via Alexa or on a video call (just to chat about anything(!)), can help give you peace of mind.
- Focus on what you CAN influence
You are in a tough situation - but actually, you are not necessarily the focus when it comes to your parents' health. If they are ill, the doctors have to make them better; their own spirit needs to fight; and it is their friends who are likely to best cheer them up. (Think about it if you were in that situation.) In my case, I currently update my dad's friends, and speak to the ward daily, and I've insisted on collecting him when he is discharged - even though, yes I was told by him "Oh no need to bother!".
- You are not a bad friend if you didn't tell everyone what was going on
When finally let my wider network know about my dad's health, I got a few "You should have told me..." texts. Why? This situation wasn't about me - what could THEY have done to improve it? Don't add the guilt they are giving you to your already fractious emotions!
It may be worth noting here that the people who respond in that way are likely reacting to their own addled emotions - perhaps thinking they had "been missed out deliberately" or, that they "aren't a good enough friend", or that they "weren't important to you." This is much more about them. They themselves will often have their own stressors and insecurities which have driven them to try and take responsibility for things which are simply not theirs to take and although attempting to express compassion, this makes them (albeit unconsciously) selfish. They read the situation as one which elicits strong emotion and fundamentally want to be kind, but their own highly stressed state means their focus is survival...ie on "me me me". (Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, Dispenza) Instead of saying "I'm there for you.", they ask you "Why wasn't I told - so I COULD be there for you?" In fact, they themselves are showing they could do with some support - but that's not your issue, at least not right now.
At the same time - truly appreciate those who drop you a line to say "Sorry to hear, I'm here for you if you need anything" ; who help alleviate your anxieties with practical support; and in my case I will forever love the friends who even dropped round a care package for me on Christmas day!!!
- Look after your own wellbeing
Being angry or frustrated helps no-one. When a parent or loved one is sick it is a very scary and worrying time, but again, this is where "Mental immunity...learning to avoid the destructive emotions and to develop the positive ones..." (Dalai Lama & Archbishop Tutu) is of greatest help. So make sure you look after yourself - whether that be ensuring healthy rest, exercise, diet, self care rituals, or enjoying that fun evening with friends/netflix/a good book. You may, despite your best efforts, still only be called to battle after the shots are fired...be physically, mentally, and emotionally ready.
-Be aware of your needs, but also mindful if you have been drawing from others
I have previously mentioned a wonderful network of friends, and have said little about my husband - who is not only a grounding, practical and sensible source of support - but has to live with my psychodramas. One of the reasons I ensure I engage in my own wellbeing practices is to stop depleting his energy supply! Make sure that your intimate family retains a healthy outlook which is not consumed with worry.
It's not a case of "Misery loves company", but rather "recognising we're in this storm together" can help!
Yes I have experienced shadenfreude (taking pleasure in the pain of others) - but that is not, as I hope the quote at the start of this article makes clear, what this is about. Yes there are negative souls out there who may meet your experiences with "Ohh...well...that's the way things are...(head cocked to one side, sigh in voice)" - but I don't spend time with those. I'm a positive thinker, and believe in doing whatever is in my power, while making sure that power is as broad as possible through learning and knowledge, as well as constantly recharged. And that is why I'm writing this now. To anyone with whom this resonates - you're not alone, you're a good person, and all you can do is your best at whatever is in your power. You won't always get it right, but the fact you try is something to be proud of, and the fact you keep trying is valued and special. Life is much less about the outcome (there's really only one of those!!)...but how you stand up, show up, and meet every day - living it to the full.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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(all of the exercises therein (and those in my previous "The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness" I am finding of huge use to myself right now!))