Nothing has prepared you for this.
Your parents are getting closer to the end of their lives, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Soon, you might have to reverse roles and become the authority in their lives.
You may have to make tough decisions. . .ones they don’t like.
You will watch their health. . .physical or mental. . .decline.
Does this worry you a bit?
Or, are you downright panicked?
Wish you could turn back the clock and keep things the way they used to be?
Your Biggest Trigger
Good, bad, or ugly. . .no matter what your relationship with your family is, they can trigger you more than anyone else.
While they aren’t to blame, your negative stuff developed early in life in relation to them.
Specifically, before age 2 1/2, you absorbed the feeling that there is something wrong with you, which I call Learned Distress®.
To handle this icky feeling, your brain developed survival mechanisms to cope with, control, or completely bury your Learned Distress.
No matter how hard you’ve worked to deal with it, that negative stuff keeps building in intensity through your life.
And then, the difficult situations you face as your parents age can shove it right up in your face!
This inner negativity probably won’t be a complete surprise.
But, you might feel it more intensely than ever before.
Here are a few of the most common inner challenges people face when their parents age and near the end of life.
1. I Don’t Know How to Handle This
Does this thought cause you to panic?
When parents age, you’ll deal not only with the unknowns inherent to anyone’s life, but with many new conditions and decisions you’ve never encountered.
Fear of the unknown is a huge piece of Learned Distress for many.
When you face the unknown, do you feel like you have to already know everything?
Or, do you feel like you have to work really hard to figure it all out. . .read a lot, talk to experts, rack your brain for solutions?
Or, do you despair at the fear that you can’t possibly even figure it out?
These are common survival mechanisms for the Learned Distress that tells us we have to know exactly how the pathway and its outcome will look.
2. I Can’t Handle This
Ever had the thought, “I’m just too weak”?
You might notice the feeling that you just can’t do this coming up a lot.
You may have to watch your parents decline physically and/or mentally.
You may have to visit hospitals or nursing facilities where you’ll see many elderly and sick people suffering.
You may have to stand up to your parents when they aren’t acting in their own best interest, anymore.
You may feel that you can’t survive the death of your parents.
Learned Distress can make you feel that you just don’t have the inner strength to handle these big challenges.
3. I Need to Fix It All
Do you only feel comfortable if things are under control?
Or, do you need people to do things your way, in order to feel comfortable?
Or, do you need everything to end up in a pretty picture?
Your aging parents will challenge all of these survival mechanisms.
Moments. . .or days or years. . .will feel completely out of your control as your parents age.
4. I Need Things to Be a Certain Way
So, maybe you’ve reconciled yourself to watching your parents age and pass away.
You’re realistic. You know it won’t be all rainbows and roses.
But, you have an idea of how it should go.
As long as things go according to plan, you’ll be OK.
This survival mechanism will not stand up as your parents go through their own, unique aging process.
You’ll be surprised many times along the way, and things may feel out of control, as a result.
5. I Need Things to Stay the Way They’ve Always Been
Change, itself, is a huge challenge to your survival mechanisms.
In fact, your survival mechanism desperately needs things to stay the same.
Aging parents may need more help from you, instead of the other way around.
They might downsize and move.
At some point, they may not remember who you are.
Many more changes than those might happen.
As they do, you may find yourself clutching to the way things were, just to feel like you’re still on solid ground.
6. For Me to Be OK, I Need Them to Be OK
“It’s not about me. I just want you to be happy.”
If that’s something you say a lot, you may find it very difficult to see your parents suffer the effects of aging.
You may find it difficult or impossible to separate how you feel from how they feel.
You may feel like your life is declining with theirs.
As a result, you may try harder and harder to “fix them” at times when you ultimately need to accept their unique pathway to the end of their lives.
7. I Should. . .
“It’s never enough.”
Your parents’ need for greater support may trigger this feeling in one or many ways.
Maybe you visit or help them, but feel you should offer them full-time support.
Maybe you live far away and feel guilty that you can’t be there in person.
Maybe you feel like you need to be loving and supportive in every moment, even when they push all your buttons.
Maybe your relationship with them hasn’t been emotionally healthy, and although “good” kids “should” take care of their parents, you just can’t bring yourself to do it.
“Should” is a word that can alert you that your survival mechanisms are in high gear.
8. I Don’t Matter
This core Learned Distress can be triggered many ways.
Maybe your parents aren’t able to express gratitude for your support in ways that feel good to you.
Maybe you become the sole caregiver and feel that you have to do everything, yourself, without any acknowledgment.
Maybe you feel taken advantage of by your parents, siblings, or other family members.
Maybe you are so focused on taking care of your parents that you forget to take care of yourself. You might wake up one day, realizing you lost your own life in the process of trying to take care of theirs.
9. It’s Not Safe to Take Charge
Unless you’ve always stood up to your parents, this can be very difficult.
You may need to take away the car keys, take over the bill paying, make medical decisions, and fulfill a host of other functions that parents can no longer do themselves.
If your survival mechanisms include needing to defer to others, your parents probably trigger that need more than anyone else.
So, you might struggle with swapping roles with them and becoming the decision-maker in the relationship.
10. But, Who Can I Depend on Now?
If you’ve depended on your parents in some way as an adult, you might feel a looming black hole as they begin to age.
If they can’t be there for you, anymore, who can you lean on in difficult times?
What if they start to need the kind of support from you that they have always provided?
Learned Distress can make you feel very dependent on others, and even the fear of losing that support can be overwhelming.
The Good News
Feeling a big discouraged? Don’t be!
At your core, you have the opposite of Learned Distress.
It’s the feeling that you are all good, exactly as you are. I call it your natural well-being.
Well-being is the kernel of energy that you began life with.
It is the very core of who you are.
Your well-being can provide so much. . .peace, inner strength, patience, flexibility. The opposite of all that bad stuff I listed above.
Learned Distress and your ways of surviving with it intensify over your lifetime and come to overwhelm your core well-being.
But, whether or not you feel connected to it, your well-being is there, waiting to be uncovered and support you through your challenges.
Tapping into Your Core Well-Being
You have more access to well-being earlier in life, but as Learned Distress takes over, well-being feels increasingly distant.
Your survival mechanisms give you a way to cope with, control, or bury your Learned Distress for a good part of your life, but at some point, those survival mechanisms become overwhelmed and stop working.
Any big stress, like your parents shifting into their final stage of life, can blow up your survival mechanism for good.
Although it will feel horrible to you, this breakdown has a magnificent silver lining.
It’s the point at which your brain will allow you to peel away Learned Distress permanently.
Until that point, your Learned Distress and its survival mechanisms hold on for dear life. . .they’ve been keeping you going, and your brain can’t even imagine there could be another way.
But, when the brain allows layers of Learned Distress to be removed permanently, well-being shows you a new way that is characterized by ease and an inner knowing that you matter and that you have everything you need within you to face challenges.
“Better than I ever imagined” is the way people describe tapping into their core well-being..
They take on what would have felt impossible and terrifying before with more strength than they knew they had in them.
When they’re in situations they know would have pushed them over the edge in the past, they sometimes don’t even notice that it was a “trigger” situation until we talk about it later.
They have a new sense of flexibility in situations that used to make them panic and try to control everything.
They discover and are able to share their own unique contribution, instead of trying to fulfill a role they’ve always felt they “should.”
They meet the unknown with more grace and peace than they knew they had available to them.
It’s up to You
As your parents approach the end of their lives, how do you want to be?
It will be a time of many challenges and unknowns.
Do you want to cling desperately to your old ways, or would you like to breathe more easily and walk alongside them patiently in their journey?
Would you like to tap into the well-being at your core that allows you to give your parents, yourself, and everyone involved more peace and joy in the entire process?
If you’re not on good terms with them, would you like this to be a time full of regret or peace?
What I wish for you is the ability to look back on your parents’ last stage of life with a sense that you contributed the best of yourself and experienced the best of them, as a result.
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.