Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Elder Care: Dementia and the Inevitable Decline

In one of my very first posts, I offered 10 suggestions to help manage the general stresses of caring for an elderly parent. If your parent has dementia, or perhaps is experiencing a physical rather than a cognitive decline because of a different disease, then you know how tough it is to watch that loss of competence.

It can become intolerably draining to witness the diminishing of your parents' world, while at the same time scrambling to help them maintain what quality of life remains to them. This is unlike the normal situations in your life, where you actions bring tangible responses and rewards commensurate with the effort you put in. When it comes to managing the care of a parent with dementia or other chronic disabling disease, you will at times put in huge effort, yet not receive the rewards you're accustomed to. There are some good reasons for this. Your parent may not want your help and so be unwilling to acknowledge what you're doing. Perhaps your parent will think they actually don't need your help and instead of responding with acceptance will push you away. Or your parent simply may no longer be in a condition to recognize that you're even helping at all.

There are times in this situation when it feels like you are dashing in every direction at once, plugging one hole after another to keep the dike from bursting open. And every time you succeed in plugging one hole, another starts leaking. What to do? How do you manage what needs to be done and also keep yourself from crumbling?

I urge anyone in the above situation to do one thing: take the time to find your core and listen to what it has to say about you and your parent. I know this sounds touchy-feely, too weirdly abstract to be of any use. Let me try to be more concrete about what I'm suggesting.

Every one of us has a place that, when everything else is stripped from us, represents the most essential elements that make us who we are. I visualize this as something tangible and concrete. You might see it as a tree trunk, which keeps you grounded despite the strong blowing winds of change. No matter which branches may break or bend during life's crises, that trunk keeps you upright and strong.

In the busyness of life, it's easy to lose touch with that strong center of yourself. What I'm suggesting here is that you use whatever means make sense to you to get back to it. For some, the means might be meditation, for others, talking things out with a loved one. Still others might reread long ago journals, or just commit to introspection during any quiet moment of the day. Whatever works for you is fine. But do what you need to do to get to that place where you can affirm for yourself what your efforts on your parents' behalf mean to you.

Going back to who you are and what you stand for, actually does help you accept that you're doing right by your parents. And, moreover, that you're doing the best you can. It also helps you identify if, in fact, you're not doing the right thing and need to change. From there, it's only another small step to learning that you can reward yourself for what you're doing. And that's ultimately what you're after. When you can do this, when you no longer need your parent to thank you or affirm what you've done for them, you may find that the energy drain you've been experiencing diminishes. You may feel less like a helpless twig caught in a tornado, and more like a strong, upright, magnificent tree who's simply grown a new branch.

OK, enough with the metaphors!!! If you get my point and have a comment on what's worked for you, I'd love to hear about it.

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