Do you have an aging parent who may need, or already needs, your care-taking? Care-taking can refer to doing the physical labor of feeding, washing and clothing an elder. In other situations, particularly after a spouse has died, your mother or father may need care-taking of the spirit.
Too often in our society when we see a depressed older parent we seek out medical care. With the medicalization of mental health, depression signifies "chemical problem: Give pills." Emotional care-taking consequently has become synonymous with obtaining prescriptions for drugs.
In the story below, by contrast, environmentalist and author Norie Huddle shares an example of the old-fashioned and yet evergreen way of easing an elder out of depression: compassionate companionship.
How does companionship work its magic? When two people interact, they tend to ease into similar emotional states. When one is angry, the other will be at risk for anger as well. Depression can be similarly contagious. At the same time, someone who has been depressed can feel better from interacting with a good-humored other. The story below illustrates this fortunate reality.
My Mama Experiment
By Norie Huddle
Papa died in 1980 of multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer. He was only 66 years old and had suffered terribly for four years. When he died, Mama, a year younger, didn’t want to live. They’d been married 44 years with a match made in heaven. She missed him terribly.
I was traveling a lot at the time, working on my third book. Realizing how grief-stricken Mama was, I called from the road every day I could for a whole year. Every time we talked, Mama cried. Every time she said, “I don’t want to go on living.” Every time, my heart ached for her.
Finally, I said, “Why don’t I move back in with you for awhile?” adding, “You need someone to bounce against, Mama.”
After all, Mama had supported me and my four siblings when we were growing up. She had been a great parent. She was brilliant. She had a great sense of humor and zest for life.
Would living with me enable Mama to let go of her grief and regain her joy of living? And if so, how?
I didn’t know what exactly I could do to help Mama break free of her depression and grief but I knew I could leave the trail better than I found it—a saying that had been Papa’s life motto.
When I first moved in with Mama, I listened and asked questions. The topic? Whatever Mama wanted to talk about. Often I started the conversation by saying, “May I join you for a cup of coffee?” and then, “So, what’s new?”
It quickly became apparent that Mama was spinning her mental wheels in a cognitive-emotional rut. She voiced the same views over and over.
After several days of listening to this repetition, I became more active. I redefined my role as shaping our dialogue, much as a potter shapes clay. “Interesting," I commented at one point. "I remember your mentioning that before.” And then, “Can you explain this a bit more? Why do you think this is the case? What do you think was going on?”
When I disagreed, I didn’t argue. Rather, I said, “I don’t understand. Please explain your reasoning. I want to understand.”
Unlike me, Mama wasn’t the hugging type, so when she expressed emotions, I didn’t try to put my arms around her. I simply entered her world and listened. Maybe listening is a form of hugging.
After two weeks, Mama’s topics of conversation widened to include current events. We started watching TV news and the debates together. Afterwards, I asked Mama questions about past elections she had lived through.
Mama, long a keen observer, spoke insightfully about elections of yesteryear. As she saw my genuine interest in her political recollections, she grew increasingly animated. She began reading books again – in part so she could share more tidbits with me. We both benefited.
We started taking walks together. At the outset Mama resisted every time – “Oh, I’m too tired” - but once we got going, the exercise and fresh air clearly energized her.
About a month into my “Mama experiment,” I had my Aha! moment.
Mama had a tiny Paddington doll that stood on a bureau near the back door. This particular morning, she’d cooked an egg and the empty half-shells lay on the counter. Inspiration struck.
Asking her a question to distract her, I picked up the eggshells and Paddington, opened the back door, and laid Paddington on his back on the doormat with one half-eggshell on either side of him.
It looked as if Paddington had just hatched from an egg.
I came back inside and closed the door. We chatted for another few minutes and then I opened the back door, gasping dramatically. “MAMA! MAMA! Come quick! You’re NOT going to believe this!”
She came rushing over, saw the “scene” and started laughing and laughing –the first time I had heard her laughter in many years. Mama’s sense of humor had re-emerged.
Mama started traveling again, an activity that in her earlier years she had loved. She took the Trans Siberian railroad, journeyed to Antarctica, forayed twice to the Galapagoes. When she fretted about “spending all that money,” I explained to Mama that we five children would rather she use her money to enjoy her life than to leave it to us. My siblings shared those sentiments.
My mother and I lived together for seven years. As remarkable a mother as she had been, these years of sharing proved to be her greatest gift to me.
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More thoughts from Dr. Heitler,
The greatest antidote to depression and grief may well be human connection, freely shared. At the same time, one of life’s greatest gifts may be to receive opportunities to make a difference for someone who is sinking in despair, and all the more so when the person in need of your kindness is someone you love.
Taking care of increases caring. Caring is loving.
Alas, care-taking for a parent who is unpleasant and maybe even mean can be an exercise in masochism. Connection in the form of loving attention from adult children is earned, not required.
If, however, you should be among the fortunate who have a close-by parent who is aging without anger, caring for Mom or Dad can yield surprising and mutually bountiful blessings.
Norie Huddle is the author of seven books, a popular public speaker and consultant, and co-founder of the Garden of Paradise Healing and Retreat Center in Ecuador, where she lives part time. Norie's most recent book is Return To The Garden.
Dr. Heitler's psychologytoday.com blog has received over 7 million reads. Her just-published new book, Prescriptions Without Pills, offers non-medication options for relief from depression, anger, anxiety and more.