Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
April 10, 2024 ·  8 min read

12 Heartbreaking Things One Learns When Caring For Elderly Parents in Their Last Days

From the time we are born and even into early adulthood, our parents take care of us. Whether we’re near or far away, they’re always checking in to make sure we’re doing alright. This is what makes it so hard when the tables start to turn as they age. Caring for elderly parents is one of the hardest things you will ever have to do, often in ways, you won’t expect.

12 Things Caring For Elderly Parents Teaches You

There are plenty of lessons you will learn while caring for elderly parents. You will learn about them and their lives, about life and general, and quite a lot about yourself, too. This list is just a few of the things you might expect to learn while caring for elderly parents, particularly in their last days.

1. They will have a lot to say, and you should listen

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It’s natural for people to want to talk about their lives when they know that they are coming to the end of it. Be attentive and pay attention to the things your parent is saying. Remember, soon they will be gone and you won’t be able to get their advice or learn any more about their lives and who they truly are. 

In fact, caring for elderly parents will inevitably teach you to be a better listener. They listened to you growing up even when you barely knew how to talk, so now it’s your turn.

2. The circle of life

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Particularly when a parent is in their last stages, caring for elderly parents really puts the circle of life on full display. When you were born, you were completely helpless and could do essentially nothing without your parents. Now, depending on your parent’s condition, the roles have reversed.

You may have to feed them, bathe them, and calm them down when they are feeling scared and anxious. You will end up doing many of the things they did for you when you were little, the difference being they were helping you prepare for life while you are helping ease their transition towards the inevitable.

3. Caring for elderly parents is hard on both of you

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It is extremely difficult for many aging adults to admit that they are slowing down or need assistance with even everyday tasks. For many people watching their bodies fall apart and not allow them to do things for themselves is very painful and often embarrassing. 

If their mind starts to go, the intense fear and panic brought on by confusion and disorientation are terrifying for that person. All of this said it is challenging for you as their child, too.

It’s not easy having to step in and do things for your once highly independent parents. It’s especially hard suggesting to them that they need help or should consider trying to do less.

Watching them panic and cry. It’s as if they were a small child rather than the person who raised you, this is another emotional rabbit hole. It is hard to stand with them while they confront their end-of-life. Be prepared for how mentally, emotionally, and physically draining it may be.

4. They will float between reality and somewhere else

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If your parent is suffering from a disease that affects their brain, you will watch them be present with you one minute and be gone to another place the next. The further they decline, the more time they will spend in this other place.

Sometimes they may think someone is there who isn’t, or they will think you are someone that you are not. Then suddenly, they’ll be back, as if they had never left.

5. Their physical appearance will change

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As they get closer and closer to the end of their life, small things will begin to change in their appearance. The light they once had in their eyes will go dimmer, their skin will become more pallid, and their smile will change. You may not notice it right away, but over time these things will add up until the person in front of you is a mere shadow of who you always knew them to be.

6. You’ll want to clear up all unsaid things

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Whether or not you have a good relationship with your parents, there will be a lot of “broken” things that you will want to fix. There will be questions you will want to be answered,  apologies you will want to receive and some you will want to give.

These moments can be beautiful, but they can also be painful. Some of them, you won’t get to have. Caring for elderly parents will teach you how to make peace with your past and theirs. It will show you how your parents really are only human, just like you.

7. Death is inevitable

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We all know that life is finite and that, in the end, no one makes it out alive. Caring for elderly parents in their final stages and listening to their stories will remind you of this fact.

Don’t let it get you down. Instead, take it as a reminder to live the life you want. Be brace and do more. Say yes to the things you want (even if they scare you a little) and say no to the things that drag your spirit down.

Laugh more. Find even just small things to enjoy in the everyday, mundane parts of life. Be a little rebellious sometimes and break the “rules” every so often. Do things because you want to do them, not because you think it is what is expected of you. This means:

  • Travel, or don’t.
  • Get married, or don’t.
  • Have children if you want them, but not if you don’t.
  • Work the steady 9-5 job, or don’t.

Eat the donut, sign up for that 5k, take the risk, make the mistake, try the new thing – whatever it is, just don’t forget to live life while you still can.

8. Like it or not, you will see some of your parents in you

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You share DNA with them and on top of that, they raised you. So while you may not look exactly like them, and perhaps you did everything you could to be different from them, you will share some traits. 

Perhaps it’s the curve of your smile or the color of your eyes. Maybe it’s your ability to stay on-pitch while singing happy birthday or a natural affinity for solving sudokus. Pay attention during this time, because after they’re gone, you will have all these little similarities to remind you that your parents live on through you, and then your children, and then even your grandchildren.

9. It’s not just about caring for elderly parents, care of yourself too

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This one is two-fold: Firstly, caring for elderly parents through the end of their lives will remind you of the importance of taking care of yourself and your health while you are younger. While living a healthy lifestyle won’t prevent you from dying, it will likely make the end of your life at least a little bit more enjoyable.

Secondly, it can be tempting to want to be with your parent 24/7, especially when you know that the end is near. Listen to the nurses, doctors, and your friends and family when they tell you to take some time for yourself.

Getting a good night’s sleep, a proper meal, some exercise, or leisure time instead of spending every waking minute at your ailing parent’s bedside is not selfish. You can be there for your loved one without putting your entire life on hold or putting your own health in jeopardy. 

10. You won’t always know what to say, but being their says a lot

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Often you will feel like you are not supporting them enough like you aren’t saying or doing the right things. Sometimes when caring for elderly parents, just being there is enough. Your presence will be a comfort to them and speaks more to how much you love and appreciate your parents more than any words or other actions can.

11. You can’t take everything personally

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As you help your aging parent go through the various stages of the end of their life, they will sometimes do or say things you might find hurtful. After all, they are only human, having a very human reaction to a difficult situation.

You will most likely get pushback when suggesting to move them into a home if that’s what you’ve chosen. Perhaps they will even make you feel guilty for not having them move in with you. 

They may get angry about a number of things. In the beginning, this could be having to use a walker, or becoming annoyed at you for constantly asking if they’ve been taking their medications. As their body and/or mind decline further, this becomes harder. They may have emotional outbursts.

Remember this: They are feeling sad at the loss of their former selves and feeling completely out of control of their own lives. They are adults, but in many ways feel as though people view them like they do small children. Be mindful of this and how you would feel in their shoes, and don’t take a lot of things they may do or say out of emotion personally.

12. No matter what, you won’t be prepared

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Often we get so caught up in the daily grind of caring for elderly parents that we forget to take time to mentally and emotionally process the reasons why we are doing it: Because our loved one is going to die soon.

When you can, try to take a moment to remember this and process it. Consider hiring a therapist, if you are able, who can help you prepare for what’s coming, as well as deal with the grief after that person is gone.

Lastly, don’t forget to accept help and support from those around you. You don’t have to go through this time alone. 

Resources On Caring For Elderly Parents

There are plenty of resources out there to help you navigate the various stages of caring for elderly parents. 

If you are considering senior care and not sure how to talk to your parents about it, read here for tips and support. Comfort Life also has a checklist with questions to ask and things to look for when visiting potential retirement homes with your parents.

There is plenty of available support to help you make a caregiver action plan, as well as tough topics like how to get siblings to help you out.

There are also resources available to you in your community, so don’t be afraid to use them. Caring for elderly parents is tough, but it can be manageable when you have the right amount of help and support.