Watching your parents age … mindfully.
Watching your parents age can be hard. At dinner this week, one of my three children (aged 11-16) commented - with slight surprise in their voice - that their grandparents had always been so ‘young’ but that three of the four had become more fragile, older. The innocence of the comment was light and the conversation soon moved on, but as daughter to one of those three, it hit a really sore point. So how can you sit with that thought, that knowledge, and not be sad, scared or overwhelmed with worry? And can you learn from it – the inevitability of ageing – so that your old age can be less debilitating and less worrying for those around you?
Eleven years ago, when she was just 64, my mother had a nasty fall, resulting in a broken hip, which was initially pinned and eventually replaced a year later, due to loss of blood supply to the head of the bone, which all but disappeared. In one flight of stairs, she went from an active curtain-maker, hauling kilos of designer fabric and climbing step ladders nimbly, to a retiree with a dodgy leg and a crippling grudge. The broken hip in itself should not have been the end of the world. In the UK around 65,000 people over 60 break their hip each year. The incidence of hip fractures increases with age, doubling for each decade after 50 and because women are more prone to osteoporosis (loss of bone tissue) than men, we are more likely to get a hip fracture (both important facts for me, as a woman nearing 48). But as I said, the break itself was fixable. However, how she went on to deal with it is becoming less so. And seeing that has been hard and at times painful.
The transition from child to carer can often happen without you noticing it. One minute your parent is your child-carer, helping you juggle work and raise a family, and the next they become one of the many you care for, worry about and juggle life around. Noticing that shift doesn’t always happen straight away. Perhaps you ignore it so as not to patronise. Or you deny it because of the consequences for them, rather than you. And accepting it can cause great sadness. When your work involves helping others become aware of their thoughts so they can be happy, involves helping heal life wounds, your automatic response is to turn your attention to healing the ones you love. To fixing them. But as my writing teacher Deborah Levy once told me, ‘you are not responsible for everyone’. Letting go of that responsibility when you know you have the ability to turn a situation around if the other one will just listen, is hard to do. All you can do is try your best and not beat yourself up if you ‘fail’.
Recently as her physical and mental health has deteriorated, I have needed to up the ante on tactics I use to deal with this, and have called more and more on my mindfulness and coaching skills. So what can we do to make life with an ill and ageing parent easier?
· Not judging; you might have chosen to make sure there is a balance of work with learning and stimulation, social events, physical activity, good diet, moderate alcohol and plenty of fresh air in your daily life, but not everyone has that luxury or those desires. Not everyone has the knowledge that they are all necessary for a healthy life. Not everyone has the clarity of mind to analyse what is missing nor the skills to make the changes for the better.
· Not striving too hard: with all the good will in the world, you can’t change someone. They have to want to change themselves. To heal. Trying too hard to make things YOUR way will only cause arguments and upset everyone.
· Being patient: the ability to take on new habits doesn’t come easily to everyone, even if their life, their sanity, depend on it. All you can do is plant seeds. Share ideas. And wait. Maybe one will take root. Maybe not.
· Have a beginner’s mind: just because you have had one or two or three unpleasant times together, doesn’t mean each and every encounter will be difficult. If you think it will turn out badly, you are practically inviting a negative outcome. Don’t avoid them. Take each day as it comes.
· Accepting: there are so many amazing elderly people in the social media nowadays. Angela Rippon and Gloria Hunniford are both about my mother’s age. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are both 10 years older. All four are still fit and working, but not every septuagenarian or octogenarian will have that experience of old age. As Byron Katie suggests, ‘loving what is’ is easier for everyone.
· Trusting: however wrong it seems, however angry or fragile the parent in front of you appears, trust that it is at it should be or can only be. So many things happen in our parents’ lives before we even come along that will impact how they embrace old age. We are not to blame. As the great man says, ‘So long as they have their breath in their chest, everything is ok.’
· Letting go: you might recall fun, active times with your parents when you were a child camping, them helping you set up your room at Uni or your first flat. You might recall them helping out with your first child. Your second. All wonderful memories of a younger, stronger, maybe even nicer, parent. And while it is good to recall good times and feel them in our bodies wholeheartedly, we have to beware of attachment. Holding on to a past that is no longer can cause pain. And if you hold on too long or too desperately it can cause suffering. Don’t forget. But do let go.
· And however hard their poor choices are to watch, whatever harsh words they hurl at you in moments of anger, having compassionate and kind eyes and ears can help you be grateful that they are still there and that you can learn from their misfortune.
I am blessed that I work with children as well as adults. One day, last year, an 11-year-old was sharing with me and the class her initial sadness when she discovered her grandfather had Alzheimer’s. She said she missed the fun times they had. Then she remembered what we had learnt about being curious and went back upstairs to have fun getting to know her ‘new’ grandpa. What a wise, young girl, who open-mindedly accepted the ancient knowledge: everything changes, nothing stays the same.
So next time it hurts to see your elderly parent struggling, turn your attention to that place in your body where you are feeling it. Take a breath in and send it there. Fill that place with loving kindness. Then take the attention off you and your pain and turn to them … while you still can.