Whether it’s a stroke, a bad fall, breast cancer, or an incurable rare skin disease, when a parent becomes sick, your life instantly changes. You’re forced to grow up in ways that you never imagined. Suddenly, you find yourself on an emotional roller coaster—one second, you feel angry; the next, overwhelmed, stressed, or upset. All of these reactions are instinctual and natural. Dealing with a sick parent is difficult, and no matter what people tell you or what you read in this article, it’s hard to actually prepare.
You can only deal once the diagnosis has been made. My family has been handling my father’s health issues—a rare incurable skin disease followed by congestive heart failure followed by a severe brain injury with stroke-like results—for six years now. If you’ve just learned that your mom or dad is experiencing a medical crisis, I’m sorry. It’s not easy, but here’s what you should do when a parent becomes sick.
Once your parent has been diagnosed, get a second opinion as soon as possible. Use the Internet to research their malady and find out everything you can about it. If there is a specialist in dementia, for example, reach out to them and ask to learn more about their studies. Go to the library and check out books on the subject. Read these books. Although it might be hard to handle, get as much information on the illness as you can bear.
Medical terminology can be complicated to comprehend, so if you’re attending appointments with your sick parent, take notes and speak up when you don’t understand something that is being said. Most people have a friend or family member who is a doctor or nurse; reach out to them and ask for advice or definitions of certain conditions. They may be a good resource for finding the proper physician.
When my dad was diagnosed with a rare incurable skin disease that no doctor seemed to know anything about, my sister lived abroad and my brother was dating a girl who nobody liked. For several months, I thought I was okay handling the situation alone. However, when the caterers at a family wedding asked my dad to leave because his skin condition made him look like a homeless person, my mom came to me crying hysterically. I burst into tears, too, and at that moment, I realized I needed the support of my siblings.
This type of situation is difficult and you’re going to need a support group to get through it. Whether it’s your siblings, your best friends from high school, or your favorite cousins, seek out an A team of people to turn to when the going gets rough. If you really don’t have anyone to turn to, make an appointment with your doctor and explain what is happening. Ask them to recommend a support group for people in your situation. For example, my dad joined an email group of people who had his skin disease.
He developed a friendship with another man who was dealing with the same issues, and it helped him get through the darkest days.
Also establish a B team. While my mom, siblings, and I want to keep things private, my dad’s five siblings have a right to know what is going on with him. Recognize these people as an exterior support group. Ask them to respect your privacy, but keep them informed by sending out group texts or weekly email updates. If you don’t feel comfortable relying on extended family for emotional support, make the B team feel included by relying on them for literal day-to-day support. Ask them to walk and feed your dog while you’re at the hospital.
Ask them to go to the grocery store and fill your fridge with food. Make the extended family feel useful by giving them tasks that you don’t have the energy to deal with.
Whether or not your parent has been dealt a life-threatening illness, your life is changed by the onset of their sickness. They may never be the same person again and that means your relationship with them will never be the same either. Take some time to grieve the loss of your healthy, normal parent. Cry while looking through albums of old family photos or let off some steam at a boxing class. Do whatever you need to do to close that chapter of your life and move on to the next.
If you normally clean your apartment every Tuesday but for the past three Tuesdays you’ve been at the hospital for your mom’s chemotherapy sessions, cut yourself some slack. It’s okay to let things—like laundry, groceries, your workout routine, etc.—go for the time being. If your job allows it, cut back on your normal workload so you have time to process the situation and help your parent to the best of your ability. When people ask you if you need help, be honest and say that you’re having trouble keeping up with the day-to-day tasks.
A good friend will offer to bring your dirty clothes to wash and fold or will stock your kitchen with nutritious ingredients from the supermarket.
What you don’t want to do is fall into a state of despair where you let everything go. If you can’t get out of bed every morning to be there for your family when they need you most, make an appointment with a therapist. Depression is immobilizing, and if you think your mom’s battle with ALS has pushed you over the edge, get a professional’s help.
Don’t pressure yourself to act like everything is normal. Life is full of ups and downs, and a sick parent is a down, so being stressed out is only natural. If you’re having trouble sleeping or eating, or if you come down with a bad cold, realize that your body is coping with the stress. Go on a walk, take a sleeping aid like melatonin, or make a batch of your favorite comfort food. It’s perfectly okay to pamper yourself during times of high stress.
You can’t be with your parent for 24 hours, seven days a week, so each day carve out some time for yourself to seek out a source of comfort. It could be church, a yoga class, or a park bench and an Isabel Allende novel. Just take some time to get away and do something that gives your mind a break from the current stressful situation.
Almost everyone on earth has to deal with a sick parent at one point or another, so recognize that you’re not alone. Whether your mom gets Alzheimer’s when you’re 20 or your dad develops lung cancer when you’re 48, it’s not easy, but it happens to everyone. It’s simply a part of life.
As difficult as it may be, you must plan for tough realities. Will your parent need to live in a Skilled Nursing Facility? How will you pay for the care? Is their prognosis ultimately death? Is their will up to date? These are the sort of hard questions you need to ask yourself and prepare for. You don’t have to ask them the day of the diagnosis, but at some point in time you have to face reality. Have a candid discussion with your A-team and come up with a game plan to cope with whatever may happen.
Below are some items that may comfort you now, in the early stages of your parent’s sickness.