How to Deal with the Stress of Taking Care of Parents

By: Judi Brownell

You may have noticed that the more important something is to you, the more stress you experience. Deciding on what restaurant you’ll go to for lunch isn’t nearly as stressful as choosing the venue for a big celebration; your decision about what to wear to a football game may be spontaneous, but what you choose for an important interview may keep you thinking about your options for hours. Now consider the responsibility of taking care of your parents—individuals who are suddenly depending on you to make decisions that affect both their physical health and their quality of life. Not only are your decisions important, but you are on a journey you’ve never taken before—one full of new information, unanticipated consequences, and high levels of uncertainty. Caregiving isn’t easy; it requires both mental and physical energy. No wonder you feel exhausted and overwhelmed.

While your situation is complicated and challenging, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your stress and ensure that you stay healthy and focused. Keep in mind that maintaining your own well-being is essential in order for you to provide the best possible care for your parents. You’ve probably been on a plane where the flight attendant reviewed the airlines’ safety procedures, instructing passengers to first put the oxygen over their own face before assisting others. In other words, you are of no use to your loved ones if you don’t look after your own health and well-being first. You have an obligation to take care of yourself if your goal is to provide a safe, comfortable, and stimulating environment for your parents. While some stress is inevitable, there are things you can do to make the situation more manageable and positive.

First, recognize your signs of stress. Do you become abrupt and impatient with your parents? Do you get headaches or feel anxious? Do you blame yourself for things that don’t go right? Do you find it difficult to enjoy other aspects of your life? Aging parents can quickly change your life and create uncertainty. This increases what we call “decision stress,” a situation in which you have many alternatives but not nearly enough information. Review the following list, “Signs of Stress,” to see if you can identify some of the things that are particularly troublesome and that indicate you need to take action. Recognizing stress before it becomes debilitating is important if you are to manage it effectively.

Signs of Stress when Dealing with Aging Parents:

  • Anxiety and Worry
  • Frustration
  • Nervousness
  • Sleeplessness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue

Think about what causes you the most stress and try to identify two or three specific things you know are stressors for you. Perhaps it’s a particular situation– or even thoughts in your head, concern about things that might happen in the future. Identifying the thought patterns that may be contributing to your stress is also one of the first steps in reducing it. Keep in mind that different individuals react in different ways to the same situation. Often, caregivers feel stress about their parents because they worry in one or more of the following ways:

Do any of these thought patterns sound like you? Keep in mind is that you have more control than you might think over how you respond to situations that cause you stress. You may feel that you are trapped in your stress, but that’s just not the case. There are a wide range of things you can do to become what we call an “active stress manager” and reduce the impact of stress from your caregiving. Five of the most important steps you can take are discussed below.

1. Develop a Support System

Everyone needs support—someone you can talk with freely about the challenges you confront and the decisions you need to make on behalf of your parents. Perhaps you and your parents are in conflict much of the time and you just need someone to help you put things in perspective. Supportive friends are there to encourage you when things get difficult, or simply listen and provide all-important friendship when you’re feeling isolated or confused. If you develop a support system of professionals, they will be invaluable in helping you find the information and resources you might need as your parents’ situation changes and you find yourself confronted with new challenges.

2. Maintain a Positive Attitude

Your attitude is key to effective stress management. Increasingly, the healthcare profession is discovering that your frame of mind even affects how often you become ill and how long it takes you to recover. Even when the road ahead looks rough and steep, do whatever you can to maintain a positive, “can do” approach. You might not be able to change your circumstances, but you can choose how you respond to your circumstances. When you imagine a stressful situation, your body behaves as if the event or outcome is really happening. Stress, then, can be increased by worrying and negative thinking—and reduced by positive thinking and “self-talk.”

3. Become an Active Stress Manager

There’s a theory of stress management that suggests that you can reduce your stress simply by changing the way you think about it and how you choose—from all the options you have available– to respond. Consider that, to some extent, we “make ourselves” stressed. Stress is not an external force—it’s not something the situation or another person “does” to us but, rather, it emerges from your own mental framework. So, rather than feeling that “your mother seriously upsets you when she refuses to take her medicine,” think: “I let myself become stressed when I hear mom say she won’t take her medicine.” Or, maybe your first reaction is to think, “My dad stresses me out when he keeps asking if he can drive himself to the store.” How would your stress level change if, instead, you thought: “I need to find a way not to allow myself to get so stressed when dad asks questions about driving.” This new pattern of thought doesn’t make the situation less serious or important, but it should help you make the transition from feeling like a passive victim to becoming an active stress manager, someone looking for solutions and options to the challenges that arise.

4. Manage Your Time

It is easy to let those “shoulds” and “can’ts” control your thoughts and your time . . . you may typically think that you “can’t” go for a walk because you “have to” grocery shop for your mom. The key is to establish priorities and set realistic goals for yourself. There is only so much anyone can do in a day; the question is, are you doing the things that are most helpful to your parents without shouldering the burden of unrealistic expectations. If you separate out the urgent from the non-urgent tasks you have, and also determine which of the things on your list are extremely important and which are just “good to do,” you can make progress toward prioritizing and toward stress reduction. Use check sheets, rating systems, and update your “to do” list regularly. Read about time management—solicit help from your partner or someone in your support group to help you make these time management strategies work.

5. One more Time–Be Good to Yourself!

The absolute most important thing you can do to manage the stress involved in taking care of your parents is to take care of yourself. This recommendation will mean different things to different people—what relaxes you and makes you feel peaceful and happy will be quite different from what a friend of yours might need. Regardless of what it is you like to do, you must take time for yourself. Don’t put off dentist appointments. Don’t skip a friend’s birthday party. Make sure you find a way to do at least some of the things you love, the things that will sustain you through the stressful situations you face. You know that your parents would want that for you.

Change is difficult, but you can start down a productive path by visualizing a clear goal and identifying one or two small steps that, given your unique situation, seem realistic. Then, make a commitment to carry through. You need to make the same kind of commitment to stress reduction as you would if you were trying to lose weight or to learn to ski. You will discover that, although you may not be able to change the situation, you can change the amount of stress you experience. Reducing the stress of an important responsibility like taking care of your parents isn’t easy, but you can do it. Remember, you are an active stress manager.

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