The Decision to Care for a Parent with Terminal Illness
It was a somber flight arriving in Los Angeles from DC, memorably the beginning of a Lakers' 2013-14 season with a win against the Clippers. There would not be a lot of winning to follow that year - for the Lakers or for my dad who had been diagnosed with cancer.
I have wanted to write about this and make it somehow worthwhile to any adult son or daughter thinking of making the caregiving of their elderly parent a full-time endeavor - something I wish were more a consideration in America, yet a solemn and arduous commitment with plenty of its own drawbacks and heartbreaks. Ten years has granted some perspective, but I'm not sure there has been much added clarity, except it was the right thing to do.
Can I Even Help?
First of all, erase the notion that you are stepping in to help your parent die. We all unavoidably die, and we usually do not need much help getting to that point. He probably accepted the end before I did, though he refused to show it. People do not need your help to die; they need you to help them live. There is nothing for you to achieve or attain, except perhaps a greater appreciation for the preciousness of life and the inevitability of death. Your job is to be there and help with the living part.
It will be hard. Most pursuits in life of any importance are, of course. But caring for a dying parent is really hard. Do not let that dissuade you, however; in trials of this magnitude, one discovers he can do more than he had predicted when he perseveres. Just remember to ask for help. You may be of the mindset that you chose this challenging time for yourself, so it is up to you to carry the load. Ask for help. People often will, they just don't know how to help or if they should intrude. I knew my friend Josh had cared for his mother and would jump in if I needed him. It turns out, when I was out making a delivery, my dad had a fall in his room. I called Josh, and he bolted there to help Dad back into bed. You should not have to do it alone.
It Won't be Picture-Perfect
It's not a movie. It is certainly a story, but you can forget about any grand storybook plots that involve skydiving and traveling the world, drinking Champagne at mountain chalets, reuniting and making peace with all prior loose ends, and arriving at some grand revelation and pretty ending. Some of that is possible, but it probably will not go as you envision. Be open to the possibilities, but running with the bulls in Pamplona in your eighties with the pains and limitations of terminal illness is usually something that could be left undone.
Yes to Life
That brings me to another point - which has its limitations, but try to give your parent what she wants. Maybe she wants to see Paris. Or maybe she just wants to spend time down the street at her favorite park. Maybe she wants a margarita every once in a while. Several times, my dad wanted to go out and make purchases that I thought were unnecessary, especially since the two of us were living on his modest pension - a wallet, a watch, pancakes at IHOP multiple times per week... You may often have to tell your parent "no," but remember these things don't mean a lot to you, but they are little things that feel like living to them. And by repeatedly telling a formerly independent person "no," you chip away at what makes life worth living. While denying a child has its merits (and seems like something that similarly must be done), denying your parent does not build character, but rather reinforces the lack of control she has over her life - what's left of it.
They always tell you to "take care of yourself." which seems like a no-brainer. Heck, people say that all the time under normal circumstances. Caring for a dying parent full-time is a stressful event unlike any you have likely experienced. You will see and do things you never thought you should have to. It is tempting to neglect your own well-being as part of your sacrifice and even indulge yourself in activities that you know are bad for you, but perhaps you deserve a pass to deal with the stress. Your parent would never consent to you caring for her if she knew it was leading to your demise.
Quality of Life
Lastly, appreciate that dying is a natural part of life, and being there for your parent is a special, humane and profound way of both fulfilling your duty as a son or daughter and living your own journey. You may very well contribute to your parent's quality of life in the time when they need you the most. In return, you will gain perspective, wisdom, and a unique durability - perhaps even a better closeness to God and purpose. I cannot say for certain, but it may help you and your approach to the reality of death and possibilities of life. It takes you to the brink, and may haunt you for some time, but eventually you will be a better person for your experience, and your gift to your parent will have given comfort while he prepared himself for that final journey.