Carolyn Hax: To do right by an ailing parent, you need to do right by yourself

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 17, 2013

Hi, Carolyn:

I have an aging father with a health condition that is likely terminal, with few treatment options.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I live far away from him and my mother, and my half siblings don’t make much of an effort to see him. My parents are left with little social support and so many painful unknowns. My mother especially has completely neglected her own health in caring for him.

I’ve been turning myself inside out, using all my spare vacation time to see them (the only thing that seems to help their spirits), to the exclusion of visits with my husband’s family and of time for my husband and me alone. My parents refuse to move closer because my dad is inordinately attached to his doctors at home. I can’t move home because my husband and I both work in a field where we wouldn’t find jobs elsewhere. We’re recently married, and our lives are just beginning.

How do I do right by my parents and give them the time with my husband and me that they so enjoy and deserve? How do I do right by my relationship and not make my life all about my parents’ needs? How do I do right by myself as I increasingly feel exhausted by my father’s increasingly desperate journey?


(Nick Galifianakis)

L.

I’m sorry — it’s a tough phase of life regardless of location and resources.

The first and most important step is to redefine “do right by.” The new version has to account for the limits on your energy, flexibility, options and the number of hours in a day. You cannot fix this or make it okay. You can only be loving and present (and not hyperventilate).

“Present” isn’t a typo: You can be there without traveling. Call, video chat, send care packages, make photo albums, handle any chores for them that you can by phone or online, keep your half sibs and other relatives updated (what they do with the information is their business), use whatever resourcefulness you can muster. Research support groups and respite care for your mom — underscore this on your list.

Another important step is to embrace triage. Yes, your husband’s family deserves your attention, too, but surely they can be patient or come to you during your family’s crisis. As long as you are prepared to be just as generous with them when their needs are higher, you’re right with the cosmos on this. If they insist on your full attention regardless, then nipping that bud can be your husband’s main contribution to your cause.

Another key step: letting go of the idea that you bear sole responsibility for lifting your parents’ spirits. They are adults, they have chosen not to move closer to you, and so they deserve some respect for their autonomy. It’s not up to you to make their choices more palatable to them. An attachment to one’s doctors makes perfect sense to me, by the way.

Think of the near future as a phase where you allot X time daily, Y monthly to this crisis. Decide X and Y in cooperation with your husband — and interspersed with alone and couple time — to keep that crucial relationship fed. Such blunt thinking may seem odd now, but it will reward you later in preempted future regrets.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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