In August 2015 my father was hospitalized for paralysis caused by cerebral venous thrombosis. My family and I could barely wrap our heads around the term or the situation. We were emotionally drained, unable to ease my father’s pain or help him get better. Not to forget, in my case, the distance of 9000 miles made it all the more impossible. When I finally reached home, my father had returned home from hospital. He had bruises all over his face from the fall after the paralytic attack. He could barely walk straight, talk or remember. I had prepared myself during my 36 hour journey, to be strong, to witness all of that. Watching him though, my knees went weak and a huge lump formed in my throat. For the first time, I was face to face with the possibility of losing a parent.
To fight the odds, we took our father to one of the best hospitals in the country (India), where modern medicine and my family’s (particularly my mother & brother’s) incessant services revived my father. That was only 20% of the battle though. Once discharged from the hospital, my father’s home care turned out to be the real challenge : taking care of his needs while ensuring he inches towards being independent enough for his chores all the while being respectful of his wishes, wasn’t easy. There was no manual or parenting class on ‘how to parent your parents’ . Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’ & insights from friends who’d been through similar situations helped fill that gap.
Its been 3 years since then and my father is able to perform his chores by himself. He doesn’t go out of the house since new surroundings throw his balance and stability off the charts. He has lost a lot of body fat but he eats a decent diet. He is 77 years old and continues to live with my mother in our ancestral home in Punjab.
Why am I talking about all of this now? So I can share what I learnt and continue to learn, hoping it might help someone else wriggle through a similar life experience:
#1 Don’t Push Your Unwell Parent To Be The Parent You Want Them To Be: Just like you can’t force your child to be someone you think they should be, don’t force your ailing parent to try to become what he/she used to be before getting sick. Let them and yourself adjust to the new health conditions. At the same time, don’t be too forgiving either. Its a fine balance — take it slow. Accept your parent for whoever he/she is, post the illness. Social acceptance goes a long way in creating a willingness to live.
#2 Don’t Neglect The Parent Who Is Healthy or Stronger Of The Two: While it is easy to channel all your energy on the ailing parent, the healthier one is suffering equally. The emotional trauma, the shock and fear of being left alone are enormous. The parent may not express that in words, so its up to you to find suitable ways to let them know you are here for her/him as well and together you will sail through the situation.
#3 Tell Your Parents You Love Them, Verbally or Symbolically : Expression of love doesn’t always work well in every family. But its imperative to re-iterate that feeling during times of crisis. If words are too difficult, offer unconditional affection, empathy and boundless willingness to understand them. (My brother used to hold my father’s hand in the hospital — just as a re-assurance that he was by my father’s side and that he doesn’t need to worry.)
#4 If Relatives Or Friends Don’t Understand Your Situation, Now Is The Time To Get Rid Of Them: Not everyone will understand you. Or try to be there for you and your family. Unless absolutely necessary, you don’t need friends who can’t stand by your side during testing times. Rapid Catharsis is your ally.
#5 Compartmentalize : People often advise this for work but in an emotionally stressful situation, nothing works better. To be able to take logical, wise and timely decisions — you need to clear your head of all the fear, arm yourself with information and be at your toes for the moment when the surgeon asks for your consent on additional work in the middle of a surgery. You may barely have 30 seconds for that decision — you can’t be afraid of what-ifs. You will have to be prepared and then live with the consequences of that decision. So, compartmentalize.
Make room for your ailing parents in your busy, technology-driven, consumerist life. Once you do that, empathy and thoughtfulness will follow. And you may not need a manual after all. It is also possible that despite your best efforts, nothing will change or help your parents. Be kind to yourself. May you always find strength !