It may seem like over night, but your mom has been changing slowly—ever since you left home, for college, to get married or to head out for your life’s adventure. Each incremental change hardly made a difference—a few wrinkles, a few more grey hairs, a little slower walking, a bit more distracted. One day, though, you suddenly realize that she has changed- and that feels like a shocker. You may notice this change after a hospital stay, or after a fairly long hiatus of seeing each other, or even at a milestone birthday. The small changes suddenly seem huge.
None of us wants our moms to change. They have always been the one who cared for us and supported us. You may have enjoyed long hikes together, or she may have made huge holiday meals for the whole family; she may have been the one in the family with excellent advice or the role model that you always admired. Now you are seeing some of those things change. Even though the hikes are shorter and the dinners less frequent, it’s clear that her love and support still surround you.
So now what do you do? It’s really not something you can fight… it is inevitable.
It’s not something you can ask her to change, since these changes are not within her control. It’s up to you, now.
First, let’s look at the range of feelings that you might be experiencing.
Grief and sadness: it is clearly understandable that you are sad about the loss of the person that you once knew and loved, enjoyed spending time with and counted on for all sorts of things. Expressing and accepting your grief is part of your healing process. Grieving over the loss of your mom as she WAS, is no different from grieving once she passes away. That person you knew is no longer with you.
Fear: Experiencing your mom as less functional can be frightening. Part of that fear relates to the shock of seeing this “new” person, and part of the fear has to do with the realization of a shift in responsibilities. You may now feel as though you are responsible, or you may actually BE responsible for your mom. This new role, this role reversal, can be very frightening.
Anger: Anger is normal and can come from any number of different places. You might be frustrated with any of the changes that accompany aging such as having to repeat things, or needing to move more slowly. Taking on more responsibility can interfere with your life, which can be both frustrating and angering. You may also be angry that you no longer can enjoy the mom that you always counted on to be there for you.
Guilt: Guilt can accompany any of the feelings that we just discussed. It is so easy to feel guilty about feeling angry or sad. In addition, you might feel guilty about not wanting to take on the responsibilities, or not taking them on, because you live far away. Even those who take on much of their mom’s care can feel guilty about not doing enough or not seeing her enough. Guilt is something we put on ourselves when we believe that we SHOULD be different.
As you can see, these changes in your mom trigger lots of feelings. You are not the only person who feels this way. The first step in managing this challenging situation, and your feelings, is to accept your feelings- whatever they are. They are normal. The changes are inevitable and your reactions are to be expected. Everyone confronting an aging parent feels some set of these feelings.
Second, work on changing what you can. If you can visit more frequently, great. If you can imagine spending time with your mom as similar to when you had a child- when everything was slowed down – then you will be less frustrated. Focus on appreciating who she is today- her smile, wisdom, humor, joy in seeing you- rather than on who she is NOT today.
Third, look at what feels like you can’t change and either explore other options, or let go. You can’t change HER or what she is experiencing; that you have to let go of. However, you might find ways to help her feel more comfortable. For instance, you might not be able to visit as much as you would like, but you may be able to find someone who can come in and read to her once a week. You can ask for help; that’s OK. Help can make all the difference in the world.
Fourth, you need to let go of the rest. You have your own life and you can’t kill yourself trying to do things heroically. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t be there for her.
If you work through these simple steps, life will be much more pleasant for both you AND you mom. The history of your relationship will carry you through the rough spots while you make these changes. Be patient with yourself. This is an on-going process. As you move forward, you will EMBRACE YOUR AGING parent, and both of you will find greater peace.
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