Four tips to help your older family members

Maria and Arthur are coming towards the ends of their lives. They are a couple I know, who raised 4 children, had vibrant and dynamic careers at the prime of their lives, lived in different countries and made a very positive and significant contribution to the world in various ways. Now, in their mid-eighties, their health is failing them in different ways. Maria has been diagnosed with a muscle-wasting disease, and Arthur has had a stroke, and while at home still, is highly dependent on carers for all his basic functions.

Their children are rallying around, visiting more often, aware that they don’t know how much longer their parents will be around, and wanting to help in any way they can. 

Maria and Arthur’s world is closing in on them. Where before they would have been interested even in just walking to the local shops for the daily paper, now their perambulations take place in shuffling around the garden. For those close to them, this can seem to be terrible, a world that is getting smaller and smaller. But both Maria and Arthur are okay with this. They are accepting of what is happening, appreciative of the good life they have lead up til now, with its downs as well as ups. They don’t know what is going to happen next, so they are taking one day at a time and feeling grateful for what they do have, as opposed to what they don’t have. 

First thing in the morning they are not necessarily like this though.  Later in the day they will cheerfully admit to feeling weary when they discover they have woken up, yet again. Each of them admits they would love to simply slip away in their sleep.  Their children would love that for them.  And in the meantime, another day presents itself, and a choice between feeling fed up that it has happened, or feeling glad that there is another opportunity to appreciate what life will bring on that day. 

If you’re in this position with your parents or loved ones, here’s 3 tips to help you be with them graciously at this time. 

Maintain a tender balance between living and dying

The moment of death is just that – a moment. In fact, if we are with the person as they pass over, we do not necessarily know exactly when that moment is. If we are with someone as they die, it is only when it’s obvious that the next breath is not coming, that they have actually died. Up until that point, the person is alive. Maybe not alive and kicking, but still alive, and thus needs to be treated as such. 

For caregivers, friends and family members, the period of a limited life up until death itself can be quite a challenge. Accepting that the loved one’s world has grown smaller can be difficult. By all means take your parents out or support them in whatever they want to do, but don’t take it personally if it all feels like too much of an effort for them and they just decline any suggestions. Unless depression has taken hold, in which case professional advice might be appropriate, take the lead from them and walk the tightrope between being alive and being dead in as sensitive a manner as you can. 

Become comfortable with the uncertainty

As caregivers, friends or family of those coming to the end of their lives, we never know when a phone call might interrupt what we had planned. We never know when circumstances might dictate the need for research into other ways of providing care. At any moment, the frail elderly loved one might fall and break a bone, become ill with a cold that can’t be shaken off, or discover a new diagnosis that brings the end nearer. 

If we can’t cope well with this uncertainty, then worry and anxiety takes hold. We all know that it’s no good worrying about anyone but in the wee small hours, when the world is dark and quiet, and everyone else is asleep, it is fertile ground for our thoughts which run away with themselves into a land of future projections, fears and concerns always beginning with ‘What if?’ Instead of this, we need to learn to live with the uncertainty; to stop playing the game the whole human race plays, of pretending we know what is going to happen. When we acknowledge that, we can then turn to the present moment, bring mindfulness to bear, and once again, accept what IS here rather than what isn’t. This is a practice that requires practice, but with that, becomes easier and easier.

Patience

Maria finds herself apologizing to her daughter – ‘I’m so slow these days, everything takes so much longer’. Her daughter is reminded of when her children were young, and she had to allow half an hour of preparation before they went anywhere. Now, she notes that while it would be much easier and quicker to do things for her mother and father, she needs to bring patience to bear, and allow them the time to continue doing what they can do rather than under the guise of being helpful, taking away from them the ability to take care of themselves.  Hence being able to stack the dishwasher, make a cup of tea, or water the plants may take much longer but it is important that these daily tasks are done while the aging person can still do them. There is a fine line to tread between ‘taking care of’ and ‘taking over’.  

Take care of the administration beforehand. 

Overall, it is much easier to deal with the administrative aspects of someone’s life after they have died, if they have been discussed in advance of that death, sometimes years in advance.  Remember, it’s always too soon – until it is too late. 

If you’re in this situation with dying loved ones, do you know what they want after they have died? Do you know the details of any kind of celebration they want? Do you know what is important to them at this time; how they want to be remembered; what their passwords to their accounts are?  If the answer is no to these questions, do you dare to ask them?  I challenge you to do so. You may very well find that everyone experiences a lot of relief when the elephant in the room is discussed. 

Jane Duncan Rogers

 Jane Duncan Rogers’ life was turned upside down when her husband died in 2011.

She now runs Before I Go Solutions, a not for profit social enterprise dedicated to helping people make good end of life plans, much more than just a will or a funeral plan. 

Find out how prepared you are by taking her free quiz ‘How Prepared Are You?’

A will is one of the foundation stones of a good end of life plan.  If you haven’t yet got a will in place you can do yours for free at Bequeathed