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7 years ago · · 0 comments

12 Questions to Ask when Caring For an Aging or Ill Family Member

I am asked many times by my clients about ways they might be able to care for their aging parents or an ill loved one. It is simple. Ask your loved one how best you can support them. There is no universal answer. Although there are specific things you can do to arrange for or personally assist them in their daily body care, the way in which they will accept that care is very individual. Many times their ability to accept assistance is a reflection of early childhood patterns and beliefs, combined with the specific relationships they have formed throughout their lives. There are also cultural beliefs that impact how a person will accept support as they become more vulnerable. All of these factors must be taken into account when caring for a loved one.

I encourage people to not personalize the behavior of their loved one. When people have had a difficult relationship riddled with unresolved issues with their aging or ill loved one, these issues can become magnified during times of stress. This may be a time when an objective third party can assist families to resolve old differences and help to establish healthier communication patterns. Ultimately, the person being cared for is going to let in as much love and support as he or she is able. We, as family caregivers, can be most effective when we reaffirm our love, manage our own judgment and feelings of powerlessness, and realize our loved one is doing the best he or she is able to do in that moment. The more we can accept our loved ones where they are, the safer and more loved they will feel.

There is no “right” way to go through a life-threatening illness, age-related decline, death or grief. These processes are as individual as the people experiencing them. There is so much loss involved, loss of independence, loss of a job, loss of control over one’s life. Sometimes it is easy to judge or discount our loved one’s experience.

As my mother declined from dementia, I had to ask myself how I might feel in the same situation. When my brother-in-law David went through chemotherapy and radiation, his suffering and struggle to cope with the daily discomfort of the treatment seemed obvious. I could only imagine how I would feel in the same situation. When things were at their worst, I would tell him that I wished I, and each of his siblings, could take his disease one day a week to give him some reprieve from the fear, pain and loss of control. That way the pain and suffering would be spread out among us, and only 1 day a week would be bearable for all. He replied that he wished we could too, which to me was a good barometer of how much he was suffering. David was a person who would never wish pain on anyone else. What was unspoken was that in taking over his disease one day a week, we would all have had a much better understanding for how difficult his struggle was. When we have not had similar experiences, it is sometimes difficult to put ourselves in the situation another is experiencing. None of us really knows how we will face a life-threatening illness, decline and death, until we are there. Love, compassion, and support are the best foundation.

My mother had difficulty letting others love her most of her life. An example of this occurred when I was about 11 years old. I had saved my babysitting money to buy my mother a special Christmas present. She had always complained of her feet being cold in the mornings so I bought her slippers. I was so excited about the “secret”. I had earned, saved and then purchased the perfect gift. I wrapped it myself. Christmas morning came and went. My mother never opened the gift from me. I felt tremendously rejected. Years later when I was cleaning my mother’s closet, I found the slippers. I asked her why she had not opened my gift and used them. She told me that she had thought I worked too hard as a child, and did not want me using my money on her. She had intended on returning the slippers and returning the money to me, (something she never got around to). She wanted me to spend the money on myself. She recognized then that I was a child who was working too hard and was missing a lot in the play department. She had no idea that I had taken her actions as rejection. She had never told me how she felt about my working so hard and she had never opened the slippers when I was younger. At the time I thought both me and my gift were not good enough. What I came to believe later was that she did not know how to let love in, mine or anyone else’s. She did not feel worthy of my time, my gifts or my love. As she declined, we talked a lot about her early childhood. She came to see how she had spent her life wanting the love of others, but not knowing how to accept it when it was there. I just simply told her how much I loved and respected her, something I repeated many times, until she began to feel deserving of love.

All of us have these stories of miscommunication, hurt, and misinterpreting the actions of others. When we personalize the behaviors of our declining loved one, we see their actions through the lenses of our unresolved hurt from the past. Our unresolved hurt can interfere in our effectiveness to care for them at a time when they desperately need our unfiltered love and compassion.

One thing we can do for those we love is to be their advocate to ensure that their choices are honored. The first thing we must do is to find out what they want. The best way I have found is to ask them. The best time to ask is before there is a medical crisis. Talk to your parents about their beliefs, their dreams and their fears.

12 Questions to ask when caring for an aging or ill family member:

1. What do they still want to do in their lives that, at the time of their death, they might regret having not done.
2. Are there any things or people they have unresolved issues or misunderstandings and what can they do to come to resolution, even if that person is dead?
3. At what point do they think they should no longer drive?
4. How do they feel about the loss of independence?
5. As they gradually begin to loose the capability to do some things for themselves, whom do they want to step in and assist them?
6. How much assistance is too much or not enough?
7. What supplemental support from others will allow them to maintain as much control and independence in their lives for as long as possible?
8. If they become ill, what type of medical intervention do they want or not want? Do they have an advanced care directive or living will?
9. Does it include how they want to be cared for when they are declining?
10. Where do they want to die?
11. Who do they want to be present during their final weeks, days, and hours?
12. What would be most comforting for them to promote completing life with dignity?

We, as their spouses, children, parents, and other relatives can be in service to our loved ones as they transition from life to death. Consider what things, if left unsaid or undone, would you regret once they are gone. The aging and dying process can bring families together, creating an intimate vessel of love and support for all involved. When members are open and honest with their love and compassion for one another, while remaining supportive of the wishes of those who are aging and dying, there is no regret.

To be in service to another is to suspend our own personal judgments and agendas. This is easier said than done. We all judge other people and events in our lives. This is part of our survival. Judging others and events can become detrimental when it separates us from those we most care about. Our personal agendas can prevent us from experiencing those we love with full acceptance and unbridled love. Most people will not share what they think, want and feel if they think they will be judged negatively or manipulated by those closest to them.

What we focus on expands. I have heard this repeated over and over through the years. I made a choice to focus on the positive intention of my mother’s behavior and the positive ways she made a difference in her community. As she declined I helped her focus on those small things in life she did with great love, helping her to realize the positive impact she had on those around her. The world was a better place because she was here. She died realizing her life had meaning. She made a contribution to the world that has had a rippling effect that will reverberate for generations to come. This is the greatest gift we can give to our aging and ill loved ones. The confirmation that their lives have had meaning that will impact the world long after they are gone.

Morning Star Holmes M.A. is a Transitional Life Coach, Family Consultant and author of the book, Transitional Wisdom, A Guide to Healthy Aging & Completing Life with Dignity and a companion Transitional Wisdom Action Journal. She works with individuals and their family members experiencing age related decline, life-threatening illness and life transitions. For further information on Caring for an Aging or Ill Family Member and to sign-up for a complementary pre-assessment of your family’s needs please contact Morning Star Holmes www.transitionalwisdom.com

Categories: General



At Transitional Wisdom we work with individuals and their families as they navigate the aging and completing life process. Using Transitional Wisdom Action Journal, we guide individuals and the family unit as a whole to complete unresolved issues and create a family care plan to support the aging and/or ill.

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