10 Tips to Help Manage Life When Caring for Ailing Parents (Along with Your Own Family)

December 27th, 2013 by Dionna | 2 Comments
Posted in Adults, Consistent and Loving Care, Eclectic Learning, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting, Strive for Balance

10 Tips

The In-Betweeners: Caring Up and Down the Generations

Until a few weeks ago, I was helping care for a parent who was terminally ill. With two young children and a life in another country, this was quite a challenge at times. Below are some thoughts on what got us through the last year, before my father’s death on 22 November 2013.

I will wager that most people reading are the jelly in the sandwich. Your parents, if they are still here, are the top piece of bread, you (and your siblings) are the jelly, and your children are the bottom piece of bread. We watched our own parents care for our grandparents while looking after us and working outside the home. Now we have moved up a rung on the generational ladder, and it is our turn.

Complicating matters further, this balancing act often occurs in a vacuum of close family support. We juggle our own family responsibilities with care-giving ones, jumping into cars, trains, or even flying halfway around the world on a regular basis.

This issue has been up close and personal for me. In Switzerland I have two young children and a husband who travels frequently. In the UK (an hour’s flight away), I had, until recently, a father with a terminal illness and a mother whose own health problems have left her frail. I don’t have siblings and have been hopping on a plane once a week for the better part of a year now.

Here is my top ten list of sanity savers that have (mostly) worked for me during this time. Yours may differ. Thinking about what makes us resilient can make us appreciate just how much we are managing already, thereby increasing our resilience.

Ten Tips to Help Manage Life When Caring for Ailing Parents (Along with Your Own Family)

1. Ask for help (don’t be a hero).

Do not try and do it all alone. Reach out for support. Old me would try and don the hero cap and be Wonder Woman. New me can see that down that path lie burnout and martyrdom, not to mention annoying the rest of your family! Far from feeling alone, I feel deeply supported and grateful.

Build strong relationships with a couple of key people. Through a wonderful family doctor and palliative care nurse we have accessed so much – 24 hour nursing care, respite hospice care, blister packs, special equipment, support for my mother, advice on managing finances, a wheelchair and more. Specialist cancer services like Macmillan in the UK are also a lifesaver. I marshaled in my parents’ friends and neighbours as well as childcare resources where I live.

If ever there was a time for me to let go of perfectionistic tendencies, now would be it. With low energy, it is sometimes as much as I can do to get food on the table and the kids into their pyjamas. Tough. All they really want is connection anyway. Grand creative endeavors can wait for now.

2. Just for today.

Planning and organizing may be essential tasks, but the mantra ‘Just for Today’ has probably saved my sanity more than any other. There is a saying that “we can keep things up for a day that would be unbearable if we kept them up for a whole lifetime.” I have learnt to prevent much overwhelm, anxiety and worry by replacing endless projecting into the future with a simple “I don’t know today (and it’s ok).” My tomorrow comes out of today, so what can I do to make sure there will be some laughter, joy and fun in my life today, and every day? What is the best thing I can do to take care of myself today?

10 Tips to Help Manage Life When Caring for Ailing Parents (Along with Your Own Family)

3. Learn from children.

Children are wonderfully matter of fact around death, illness and dying. They model healthy ways to deal with it all (or will model healthy ways to deal, if left to their own devices without adults trying to shift them out of their emotions). They may feel something deeply and sob, and two minutes later be off playing outside. They ask honest, direct questions to which the best answers are also simple, direct and honest. They are barometers of what the emotional temperature in the house is.

Children also show us how to flow with our own emotions. It has really helped me to remember that waves of sadness – or indeed any other emotion – are just that, waves. When we can avoid attaching a story to an emotion and just see it for what it is – an energy state, a means of transition – and notice how it shows up in the body, we can just be with the feeling while it is there and notice it come and go. Allowing ourselves to feel sadness opens us up to experiencing joy too. In contrast, depression could be described as a state of numbness or detachment from all feeling.

4. Cultivate joy.

Cultivate whatever makes you joyful. I have not danced as much as I am dancing right now since I was a teenager! With my kids, without, in classes, in the bath. Dance and yoga have become essential packages of safe time where I can drop outside responsibilities and just be. This one requires us to articulate our desires and needs, to ourselves if not to anyone else. Often as parents, we deny and defer them instead.

5. Have an attitude of gratitude.

There is much I am grateful for. The chance to show my Dad I love him. The fact that I have had my parents as long as I have. A place to live. Family. Food on the table. Not to be working until 3 a.m. every night right now. My own health. Studies consistently link articulation of gratitude to positive mental well-being. One exercise is to do a Gratitude ABC. Apples, Ballet, Children . . . As the old saying goes, pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. This is closely linked to my next tip . . .

6. Practice radical acceptance.

I have learnt to practice radical acceptance. (I’ve also learned that fighting reality hurts.) Accepting what is is a truth universally echoed by the ancients (the Serenity prayer) and by modern self-help millionaires like Byron Katie (Loving What Is). I try to remember every day to ask for the grace to “accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

7. Develop a rhythm of resilience.

It has consistently been emphasized to me that it helps to have a rhythm if you want to cultivate spiritual or other practices of self-care. I profess to a horror of externally-imposed routines. But this is not about anyone telling me I should get up at 5 a.m. to have ‘me’ time. It is about normalizing the practices that make us feel well. I try and read a passage from something inspiring and meditate and/or practice some yoga every day.

When that does not happen every day, as is inevitable with two small children and a procrastination habit, I notice it but try not to make it a biggie. Beating myself up for not sitting down to meditate would obviously be self-defeating! I try to allow the interruption and return to doing it the next time. Sometimes the kids join in too, they enjoy lighting candles and incense in the morning.

8. Remember where you stop.

That would be where my toes are. While I do appreciate spiritual teachings on inter-being, non-dualism and all the rest of it, in this situation it helps enormously to remember what I can control (myself) and what I cannot (anyone else)! Other people have their path. I have mine. Stressful times can bring up old patterns of control but trying to manage everything and everyone is a surefire recipe for my insanity.


That stands for Hungry. Angry. Lonely. Tired. I try to notice when I am any of these things and attend to the need before an explosion happens. Otherwise, it tends to be ugly.

10. Utilize black humour.

Not much to say about this one! I remember a few months ago, trying to wheel both of my parents down a hospital corridor in separate wheelchairs. Suddenly the whole thing seemed so awful and ridiculous I got a fit of giggles. (It was either that or burst into tears). Without this one, I would have gone nuts!

Have you ever cared for an ill parent? How did you cope?

Books and websites to help children talk about death:


About the Author: Olivia Streater Lavizzari is a human rights lawyer, dancer and mother of two who has practiced in the UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Mexico, the Caribbean and South Africa. She lives in Basel, Switzerland.

Olivia’s father, a copywriter, wrote his own version of Olivia’s bio not too long ago. Here’s what he had to say:

London-born Olivia worked for Amnesty International on some far from “gentle” cases, before qualifying as a lawyer with a top firm whose prices are far from “gentle.” She then met her definitely gentle Swiss husband, a high-flying lawyer both metaphorically and very often literally. They, their baby boy committing “milk armageddon,” and his 3 year old (old?) brother live in Basel, where Olivia practices her gentle, and joyful, and connected parenting in a large family house whose floors would be hard to keep clean, even without babies spewing milk all over them.

Photo Credit: Author

2 Responses to:
"10 Tips to Help Manage Life When Caring for Ailing Parents (Along with Your Own Family)"

  1. I have a close friend who has been caring for ill parents for over 10 years now, so I can appreciate this post from that perspective as well as the general struggle of difficult periods in my own life. One thing that stood out to me was your insight that depression is not so much sadness as numbness. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. Olivia   OliviaStreaterL

    Thank you Jennifer. I wish your friend much strength. Of course, that was just my own experience of depression and others will have their own articulation of how it was, or is, for them.

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