Caring for Aging Parents

As a Chaplain, I’ve visited employees’ parents and have prayed with the family as they work through health issues requiring more caregiving from the adult-children.

Stability Undone

Imagine that you have a way of living, set routines that allow you to connect with your immediate family, work at your own pace, and a sense of stability. Then imagine all of that coming to a halt because of an aging parents’ health condition taking a turn. Work and home life schedules destabilized. Concerns of the health condition, finances, and proximity to the parent are all stress factors that are being worked through in real time.

Nonconstructive Responses to Health Issues

How do we respond to challenges such as our parents going through health concerns? We love and want to honor them during a loss of health (among other losses). Howard Clinebell says that people can respond in ways that actually create more of an emotional tailspin, causing more problems than needed. Here are some nonconstructive responses from people:

  • Denial that a problem exists.
  • Evasion of the problem (via alcohol or drugs, for example).
  • Refusal to seek or accept help.
  • Inability to express or master negative feelings.
  • Failure to explore the nature of the crisis and alternative solutions.
  • Projection onto others of major responsibility for causing and/or curing the crisis.
  • Turning away from friends, family, and other potentially helpful persons.

During health changes with aging parents, adult-children themselves need care, nurture, and supportive skills to manage the crisis. The threat of loss can be stressful and anxiety-ridden. An adult-child will most likely feel grief at a deep level, causing anxiety and a sense of being disoriented as they adjust to new normals.

Clinebell says that:

A crisis occurs within persons when their usual problem-solving activities are ineffective, allowing the stress of unmet need to rise unabated. The stress stems from the deprivation of the satisfaction of some fundamental physical or psychological needs.

Clinebell, Howard,McKeever, Sister Bridget Clare. Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling: Resources for the Ministry of Healing and Growth

A crisis has a way of halting our usual patterns of coping in life, causing a tension of new needs and stresses to figure out how to maneuver.

I’ve seen people have more stress and act out in unhealthy ways when the lack of healthy crisis response skills are not sought.

If the problem is not resolved, the inner stress of unmet needs mounts until it reaches another threshold—the breaking point where major personality disorganization (psychological, psychosomatic, interpersonal, or spiritual illness) occurs.

Clinebell, Howard,McKeever, Sister Bridget Clare. Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling: Resources for the Ministry of Healing and Growth

Finding a New Normal

The best I can do as a chaplain is to help the person think through options and goals during this time. Here is where Clinebell really shines in his approach to helping people cope with the crisis:

  • Facing the problem.
  • Enlarging ones understanding of it.
  • Expressing and working through negative feelings such as resentment, anxiety, and guilt.
  • Accepting responsibility for coping with the problem.
  • Exploring alternative ways of handling it.
  • Separating the changeable from the unchangeable in the situation, and avoiding wasting precious energy by trying to change the unchangeable.
  • Surrendering grandiose, burdensome aspects of one’s self-expectations.
  • Opening channels of communication with helpful people among relatives, friends, and professional persons.
  • Taking steps, however small, to handle the problem constructively.

Christ Jesus Faces Problems

It seems like Jesus models facing problems head on throughout the Gospels. If someone is sick, He visits. If someone dies, He weeps and goes to family’s home. When religious leaders are misusing power, He deals with it directly.

The ultimate problem is the Cross. He wants to avoid it, not face it when He prays to the Father to find an alternative options. During the prayer, He ends up saying, “Not my will but your will be done”. He does this three times!

As a chaplain, I’m trying to help people see the situation for what it is, helping them face the gravity of the problem and then asking God for the wisdom to walk through it with grace, trust, and peace. Options. Possibilities. Reflecting on the type of people we want to be during this time. Seeking meaning.

For me, as I provide care for my family members who are going through health issues, I want to see myself as a person who is safe, loving, and nurturing. I want to be the type of person that knows God longs to equip and help shape my character to reflect Christ in all circumstances. This means sacrificing, seeking a deeper meaning and purpose to the situation, being a faithful presence.

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