A psychologist offers advice about “being there” for elderly parents
As our parents age, we find ourselves on a challenging emotional journey, one that often remains unspoken but deeply felt. It is a journey of anticipatory grief, a complex mix of emotions and thoughts that arise as we witness our parents becoming older, weaker, and more vulnerable. This concept, often overshadowed by post-loss grief, is equally devastating.
Anticipated grief begins before the actual loss, as we grapple with the impending loss of our parents’ vitality and independence. It includes feelings such as sadness, anxiety, guilt and anger – stemming from the anticipated loss of strong individuals who cared for us, uncertainty about the future, ambivalence regarding caregiving responsibilities and frustration with the challenges of aging parents.
Dealing with these complex emotions as we support our aging parents during this stage of life can be difficult. Here are three coping strategies you can focus on as you move forward.
1. Accept and normalize the natural course of life
While it is natural to mourn the loss of what once was, it is necessary to accept and normalize it as a part of life. According to one study, children dealing with anticipated sadness find solace in distraction and maintaining normalcy.
There are different ways to focus in the present and distract yourself from painful feelings. For example:
- If either parent has always had a green thumb, consider spending a sunny afternoon planting flowers together in the garden.
- A tradition as simple as Sunday brunch can become a cherished routine that strengthens family unity while crafting memories.
- Engaging in therapeutic art, such as painting, sculpture, or crafts, can serve as a way to channel complex emotions that may be difficult to express and offers a meditative and therapeutic experience.
Seizing such moments allows you to be present in the here and now, and make the most of the time you have at this very moment.
2. Create old projects
Study published in American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine He revealed that memory making can lead to very positive experiences, leading to the creation of cherished keepsakes.
Thus, creating legacy projects provides both – a sense of purpose while also giving you the opportunity to preserve memories. Here’s how to create one with your elderly parents:
- Create or update family photo albums together. Sifting through old photos can be a fun activity that sparks storytelling and laughter. As you organize these photos, you will discover forgotten memories and strengthen the bonds that unite your family.
- Encourage your parents to write heartfelt letters to their grandchildren or great-grandchildren. These messages can include personal anecdotes, valuable advice, and expressions of love. They serve as an heirloom that future generations can cherish, providing a sense of continuity and connection.
3. Heal with humor
At times when anticipatory grief becomes too stressful, laughter can act as a natural stress reliever by releasing endorphins — chemicals that help the body feel happy. As an emotional release valve, humor temporarily alleviates the burden of sadness and anxiety.
Research suggests that individuals with a natural inclination for humor tend to cope better with sadness. They experience greater coping effectiveness, fewer negative physical and emotional symptoms, and generally function better during the grieving process.
Humor therapy has proven to be an invaluable ally in dealing with anticipated grief, offering a multifaceted approach.
- It facilitates emotional conversations. When discussing topics related to aging, such as health issues or end-of-life decisions, humor can help relieve stress and create a more comfortable atmosphere. Sharing a lighthearted moment before tackling serious matters can make difficult discussions easier.
- It builds emotional resilience. It allows individuals to reframe difficult situations and find humor in the face of adversity. By encouraging your parents to embrace humor, you enable them to adapt to the changes that come with aging and maintain a positive outlook.
- It instills an element of fun into your caregiving responsibilities. It can make caregiving tasks more enjoyable and relieve the emotional stress that often accompanies such roles. For example, while helping with daily routines like dressing or feeding, incorporate fun elements. Sing a silly song, tell fun stories, or use gentle humor to make these tasks seem less clinical and more human.
Anticipating grief is a deep emotional journey that reflects the depth of our love and connection with our parents. As you walk this path, know that your feelings are valid and that finding healthy ways to cope with them can lead to a deeper understanding of yourself and your parents, strengthening the bond you share. Keep in mind that each person’s journey through grief is unique, so exploring different approaches and finding what resonates with you personally can be especially helpful.
(tags for translation) Anticipatory grief