A 34-year-old designer and stylist from Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, who prefers to stay anonymous, talks about how concerned they are about their 60-year-old mother's health. But they discuss this with her, she dismisses those concerns. "Having already lost a parent to a sudden heart attack, my sibling and I live with [the] dread of a phone call. Checking up on the family while people sleep to see if everyone is breathing and not dead had become a nightly ritual. The stress of others' health and one's own at the same time take [the] shape of collective dread and anxiety about health," they said, adding that their mother already struggles with diabetes and arthritis.
Like this designer, many adult children witness the anxiety and stress of their parents growing older and dealing with age-related illnesses but find no outlets to express or address them. "I see people my age very worried about their parent's health, and the time gets wasted in a tug-of-war between parents and children where parents mistake concern with interference and their children mistake fear of ageing and lack of communication to apathy," adds the designer.
According to a research paper on middle-aged people with ageing parents and adult children, published in Innovation In Ageing in 2021, the worries for the parent's health and need for support occur simultaneously with concerns for their adult children's relationships and needs. "Research reveals links between midlife adults’ worry and sleep quality, underscoring how worries compromise health and well-being. In addition to compromising sleep, worries may also contribute to poor health behaviours, such as emotional eating," it said.
The fear and anxiety over our ageing—be it of our own or of those we love—are quite common, even if it comes as a shock sometimes. In the case of our parents, the feelings are particularly complicated. “As children, we consider our parents to be superheroes. Superheroes don't fall sick much, [they do not] have terminal illnesses, [and are not] incapacitated, ”points out Mumbai-based counselling psychologist Kuntal Vora, adding that when a parent falls sick, this illusion is destroyed.
It gets further compounded by worries about managing the financials and the fear of losing them one day. This anxiety over the impending loss grows more and more with time. "It can make us feel sad. This feeling dominates and lingers on for a long time. The feelings of frustration, irritation and helplessness come in," adds Vora.
But where do these feelings come from, and how can they affect your mental health? Faridabad-based clinical psychologist Trinka Arora says it stems from anxiety about how you would survive without your parents and the support they have provided to you. "They have been there as protection. So, now, it is after many years [that] you are learning to live without them. And you will have to manage a lot of things on your own," says Arora.
Once this fear grips you, it remains at the back of your mind every time. If you find that the health of someone closer to your parents’ age is deteriorating, you will fear for your parents too. "It's like you are continuously on the verge that anything can happen, and you are prepared for any emergencies," adds Arora. She further explains that this build-up of anxiety automatically affects your mental health and may even cause depression.
As you obsess over your parent's age-related concerns, you may also experience anticipated grief. Vora explains anticipated grief as a process of mourning that happens before death. It creeps up on you as you witness the passage of time and the inevitability of death."The anticipated grief shows up in little things when the routine changes and the menu for food are modified. It also shows up in big things like buying clothes for the person [or] going over a person's will," says Vora.
Even though these feelings are discomfiting, they hold meaning and value. The question is how to cope with these fears and worries and if and how you can take care of yourself as you tackle them.
First, it is prudent to focus on the now and what we can do today. "Even if it's not death, we cannot predict what would happen next in terms of ageing [and] illnesses. What helps is to stay in the present," suggests Vora. Another thing that can help is to make a plan of action for emergencies, for example, knowing how to navigate insurance policies and which doctors to consult, she adds.
At the same time, she advises doing something for yourself and not losing your identity, especially if you are a caregiver for your ageing parents. "One can also engage in some light-hearted activities like going to a comedy show or a movie, listening to music or engaging in some form of sport," explains Vora. She also suggests participating in support groups for caregivers or community spaces where you can discuss and express your fears and anxieties. Talking to a therapist can be helpful too.
Adding to that, Arora suggests building good memories with your parents and spending time with them whenever you get the chance. It would offset some of the guilt and regret you may feel about it. It is also better to be realistic and create a balance where you can work, do all the chores, and justify your time with your parents, she adds. She suggests having an honest conversation with them. In this process, you can also discuss matters like finances or their thoughts about what they want to do with their time or places they want to visit with you. "Even that conversation would help them also understand what you are going through and help you connect better with them," says Arora.
Anmol is an independent journalist who writes and reports on gender, health, social justice, and culture from an intersectional lens. You can find them on Twitter @ha_anmol