I don’t think I’ll ever forget the exact day, the exact moment when I realized that my beloved mother was getting older. I had lived in Denver and elsewhere for many years, but I had always made it a point to visit my parents (who lived in Chicago) at least once or twice a year. I usually spoke to them on the phone several times a week, as well.
At any rate, I don’t think I had seen my mother in about a year. She came to the front door to let me in. My wide grin suddenly and against my conscious wishes morphed into a blank stare in just a matter of minutes as soon as she opened the door and I looked into her eyes.
I knew who the woman staring back at me was. There was no question about that. This was my dear mother, someone I loved as much as anyone I knew in this world. She had birthed me. She had reared me. She had loved me. For all of my life.
What I felt at that moment, however, was the shocking revelation that the woman staring back at me—the woman who was desperately searching her face for a smile—was not the same woman I had seen a year ago.
My mother had always been a very beautiful woman. I can remember our going out together and having people who didn’t know us ask whether we were sisters. While this had always been a wonderful compliment for her, it had usually, particularly when I was much younger, left me feeling a bit annoyed and perplexed.
No matter though. Because my mother had always been stunning, beautiful, and youthful, was why this moment standing at her front door caught me feeling so uncomfortable. I looked desperately for the gorgeous, youthful mother I had always known. Sadly, she was not to be found.
I remember feeling lost and forlorn. My youthful, vibrant mother was getting older, markedly older. “When had this great transformation happened?” I remember thinking to myself. “Where is my young, beautiful, vibrant mother? Where has she gone?”
If the whole situation hadn’t been so awkward and uncomfortable for me, I think I would have broken down in tears right then. But, of course, how could I cry at the sight of the mother whom I loved so much? How could I act as though I was anything other than delighted to see her after more than a year?
And that was just the beginning. That was the beginning of my battle with my mother’s aging, her dementia, and her subsequent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. This horrid journey was mired in a host of feelings and emotions, some of which I wanted to have—I was delighted that my mother was alive—and others which I dreaded—“What on earth is happening to her? Where has my dear, sweet, beautiful mother gone?”
As a child or a close friend or a spouse or a caregiver, each of us will experience different emotions and feelings as we watch those we love, care about, and/or care for get older. Aging, depending on the lens through which we view it, does not always seem to be a beautiful thing, and if we view it as something awful or fearful or ugly, we will experience different emotions that accompany those views.
Some of our feelings may include:
- Guilt—We may feel guilty because of things we said or failed to say or things we did or did not do with our loved one who is aging.
- Sadness or Regret—We may feel the urgency of time passing and regret things we did or failed to do that, in our minds, may have made this time better for our loved one who is aging—and for us.
- Anger—We may actually feel angry because our loved one is aging and because we have come face-to-face with our own mortality and with the awful, certain fact that our loved one will not be with us forever. And there is not one single thing we can do to change this.
- Desperation–Since we’ve now come face-to-face with the realization that our loved one’s time on earth is finite, we may feel desperate about what we should do, what we should say, what decision we should now make in order to make whatever days they have ahead as joyful and as comfortable as we possibly can.
Any host of feelings and emotions, depending on our past and current relationship with our loved one, may surface and haunt us. Here are a few things we can do in order to deal with these feelings when they surface:
- Guilt. Feeling guilty about what we have or have not done will do little to ease our grief about the situation or the realization that time passes for all of us, even for those we love most. The only thing guilt will help us feel is more guilt. Let it go. What’s done has been done. What’s said has been said. There’s no way to un-do it, so we must get on with the business of creating as much joy and happiness as we possibly can in the life of our loved ones—and in yours. Guilt will only weigh us down. So, get rid of it. Work on getting rid of it one day at a time until as much of it as possible has been vanquished from our psyches.
- Sadness. Of course, we will feel some sadness or regret. Because we live in a culture that celebrates all things youthful and often shows contempt for aging and those who are aged, it’s only normal that we would feel some sadness or regret. Sadness over lost youth. Regret about things we wish we had or had not done. Sadness that there are probably more days behind our loved one than days ahead. To counteract this sadness, research and join a support group in your area. There are probably a number of support groups comprised of people with aging parents or caregivers of the elderly. In these groups, you will find that you are not alone and that your feelings are not unique. Spending time with others facing the same situations you are facing may provide you with creative solutions to problems and information about resources you didn’t know existed.
- Anger. You may feel anger, anger about any number of things. My best advice to you is to let it go. Work out at a gym. Take a walk through the park. Spend more time with other people you love. Anger at the situation, while it is probably very normal, will serve little purpose except to make and keep you upset. Feel your anger, but find a way to channel your anger into something positive. If you don’t, that anger is likely to distort and disturb whatever time you do have left to spend with the one you love and care about or for.
- Desperation. When you realize or convince yourself that time with your loved one is “running out,” you may feel a sense of desperation about of the would-have’s and could-have’s and should-have’s that you can distract yourself with. Don’t get desperate to fill every moment with some activity or some new adventure. Do the things that make sense, but let go of the illusion that you can create more time by doing more things. Spend as much time as you can with your loved one, and spend that time doing things that your loved one enjoys doing. Keep in mind that the thing your loved one may enjoy doing most is spending precious time with you and others that he or she loves.
Many emotions and feelings may flood your brain and spirit when you come to the realization that someone you love will not always be with you. That is a realization that comes to us all, if we live long enough to have special loved ones in our lives. Feel your feelings and emotions, but don’t let negative feelings and emotions take over your life or cause you to waste precious time and energy that you could use to care for and spend time with your aging loved one. As I often say, “Aging, depending on how we think of it, may not be the thing that we most desire, but it beats that heck out of the alternative.”
A life well-lived is just about all that any of us could ask or wish for. Don’t let negative feelings or emotions—remember, you’re the one who creates your feelings and emotions—disturb your soul or distract you from relishing and spending meaningful time with those you love. Each precious day is a gift. Use it and spend it wisely, hopefully with those you care about and love.
About the Author
Cynthia Barnes, PH.D., lives in Denver, Colorado and is an experienced educational and training professional at all educational levels. Dr. Barnes has a background in organizational development and change and systems thinking/operating. She is a published author with exceptional written, oral, and interpersonal relationship skills. Dr. Barnes has consulted with organizations and school systems throughout the United States and in Canada, Germany, Micronesia, and South Africa.