Losing a parent feels insurmountable at any age. Our series helps you face it ― from the practical logistics to the existential questions about death and dying today.
When a parent receives a terminal diagnosis, it can instantly sweep you into caretaking mode ― chauffeuring to doctor appointments, picking up medications, keeping a positive attitude, running errands and doing anything you can to keep your loved one comfortable.
But it’s important not to forget yourself in the process.
“When your family member is seriously ill, you may become so distracted by the intense process that you may forget to do simple things like eat healthy, go for a walk or get some sleep,” said VJ Periyakoil, director of palliative care education and training at Stanford Health Care in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Running yourself into a state of exhaustion will only keep you from fully being there for a parent who needs you ― and will jeopardize your own health. Brent T. Mausbach, a clinical psychologist at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health in La Jolla, California, said caregivers who neglect their own care “are at risk for depression, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases.”
But, realistically, how do you practice self-care when someone you love requires so much of your attention? Of course, they’re your priority, but spoiler alert: You can’t effectively help someone without helping yourself, too.
HuffPost spoke with medical professionals and those with experience as parent caretakers to get their tips on how to take care of your physical and mental health in the face of a parent’s terminal illness.
Read Up On The Condition
Daniel Vorobiof ― chief medical director of Belong.Life, a social network for cancer patients, caregivers and health care professionals ― suggested learning all that you can about your parent’s medical condition.
“Being informed about different treatments available, and the possible side effects and benefits, will help support the patient to make the right decision,” he said.
When you know more about the disease, you will understand the possible physical and mental changes that could happen and manage them in a proactive way by giving the right advice, as well as consulting the right specialists, he added. This can help you to understand what may possibly happen and be better prepared mentally to tackle what’s to come.
Ask For Help
“Don’t try to do all care alone. No one can,” said Elizabeth Landsverk, founder of Elder Consult, a San Francisco-area geriatric care house-call practice.
Ask your parent’s doctors for recommendations on services you can put in place to help with things like running errands and providing rides to and from health appointments. Recruit family members or hire someone to be there to give care at night. If you can, look into a housekeeper or meal delivery service to take some tasks off your plate.
Susan Scatchell, a business development director in Deerfield, Illinois, who cared for her parents during their terminal illnesses, suggested keeping a note of tasks you’d be willing to delegate and dole them out if people offer. “Examples may be walking the dog, mowing the lawn, picking up kids or grandkids, sitting at the hospital and reading,” she said.
Talk It Out
Finding someone, like a therapist or spiritual leader, to speak to openly and honestly about what you are feeling can help you process emotions.
“Death means different things to different people, and it is important to find someone you can lean on for support,” said Jodie Robison, the executive director for military services at Centerstone, a multi-state behavioral health care organization.
Looking for outside support from others who are or have been in your situation can be beneficial, said Michelle Braley, clinical manager at The Learning Corp, a mobile therapy app used to treat speech, language and cognitive disorders.
“Beyond offering sympathy and encouragement, live or online support groups can help family caregivers feel validated and less alone as members bond through shared experience,” Braley said.
Inform Your Boss
Many adult children feel pressure from their employers that keeps them from asking for time off to deal with a parent’s illness. Jisella Doan, global advocacy officer for Home Instead Senior Care in Omaha, recommended talking to your boss about what would be most beneficial in your situation, “whether it be flexible hours, additional support from co-workers, or access to resources such as employee assistance programs,” Doan said.
“Securing the right work/life balance can make an enormous difference in your mental health and ability to truly care for your loved one,” she added.
Sneak In Small Activities That Delight You
“Doing things that you enjoy and find restorative is very important,” said Jephtha Tausig, a licensed psychologist in New York City.
Sneak in some reading in the hospital waiting room or before bed to unwind. Watch a funny movie to lift yourself up. Call up a good friend. Tausig added that simple walks to decompress and gather your thoughts are also good options for weaving in some “you time.”
Move Your Body When You Can
She shared that when her mother was dying of cancer, she found reprieve in a daily run. “Cranking my music and running, even for 10 minutes, was a release I intuitively reached for in my anticipation of her death,” Forsythia said.
Karen Selby, a patient advocate at The Mesothelioma Center, said that “if you find yourself sitting for extended periods of time, set an alarm to remind yourself to stand and move around every hour.”
Don’t have time to hit the gym? Try going for a walk through the hospital hallways, stepping outside for fresh air or using the stairs instead of the elevator. Moving your body, even if it’s just for a bit, can elevate your mood.
Julie Smith, a physical therapist and integrative nutrition health coach in St. Louis, found that getting enough sleep was key to staying energized when her mother was battling Stage 4 melanoma.
“Adequate sleep is necessary for brain function but also plays a huge role in our emotional and physical health as well,” she said.
Smith suggested going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. And try some deep breathing before you hit the sheets, a technique that Smith said helped to ease her mind enough to drift off.
Try Not To Get Hung Up On Family Arguments
Garland Walton, a nonprofit consultant in Nice, France, helped to care for his mother during her final stages of life. He said that during this time, the family dynamics got the best of him.
“My sister and I said and did hurtful things. Some I let go, and some I didn’t, but I learned that those episodes produced nothing good, and every fight or tense discussion was an unnecessary expenditure of energy I should’ve been putting toward my mom,” he said.
He suggested doing your best to put aside family differences while in caretaking mode so you can focus your energy on your parent in need.
Maintain Healthful Eating Habits When You Can
Ensuring that you are loading yourself up with proper nutrients can go a long way, according to Wendy Kaplan, a registered dietitian nutritionist. Kaplan suggested keeping healthful snacks on hand to avoid relying on vending machines. She also recommended keeping your fridge stocked with pre-washed and cut fruits and vegetables and carrying portable single-serving snacks, such as hummus and carrots, trail mix, and guacamole and whole grain chips. And don’t forget to stay hydrated.
Consider A Little Pet Therapy
“Studies have shown that socializing with pets can increase serotonin and dopamine levels, which lower depression rates and help people relax after a stressful day,” Nalin said. So after a particularly taxing day, it can be a great self-care practice to cuddle up with your favorite fur baby and let the stress melt away.
Dress For Comfort
Sitting in waiting rooms is already difficult enough.
“Never wear anything hard to get into or out of, never wear uncomfortable shoes or clothing,” said Bonnie B. Matheson, an author in Washington, D.C., who is caring for her 101-year-old mother.
Another tip she’s found to be helpful is to wear athleisure wear around the hospital “so that you can go to an exercise class” if you get an hour or so to sneak away.
Remind Yourself To Let Go Of Guilt
You deserve care ― and you shouldn’t shame yourself for needing it.
“If your parent is in the hospital very ill, you may feel guilty to do anything other than sit by their side, so compulsively you will stay with them to avoid the burden of your guilt,” said Stephanie Wijkstrom, founder and psychotherapist at The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh.
She noted, however, that the issue with this kind of irrational guilt is that nothing you do will ever be enough to stop it from affecting you. “You must label your feeling as irrational guilt and accept your need for some balance and self-care in the rush of your parent’s illness,” she said.