Dealing with a parent’s illness

My worst fears coming true

Up, down, up, down. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale…

Starting at the age of nine, I’d sneak into my dad’s room and watch him breathing for five minutes. It was how I assured myself that he was still alive and ok…and I did it every night.

This irrational fear of my father dying started after the night my mother, who had stage four cancer, kissed me goodnight and told me everything was going be alright. Despite her promise, the next morning she never woke up. I don’t remember if my dad explained about death and diseases to me, but I do remember that her sudden death had me convinced that my dad could just stop breathing too. It took until I was in high school and learnt about disease before I stopped checking on my dad.

Fast forward 20 years…. I’m a woman with a career and a wonderful fiancé. But I’m doing it again. Watching my dad’s breathing every night, sometimes staying up all night watching. Because this time- I’m sure he’ll stop breathing.

My father has hypertension… one of the most common silent killer diseases around (from what the doctors have told me ). Hypertension means that from time to time he has violent headaches that make the world around him spin like a merry-go-round from hell. Because I love my father so much I’ve adjusted my routine so I can juggle my personal life and take care of him at the same time.


It is really hard at times like this to truly accept the reality you’re living. For most of us, our parents have always been there to take care of us, so it is a shock when the tables turn and suddenly you’re expected to take care of them. It helps to sit down, with siblings if you have any, and map out logistically what you need to do. By breaking down the tasks needed to help your parent recover, you’ll be in a better position to make useful decisions as opposed to emotional decisions. Panicking doesn’t help anyone. Try to relax and think about practical ways you can help your sick parent feel as comfortable as possible. Don’t worry if you’re frazzled at first, especially if your parent’s illness requires physical labor . As your brain starts accepting the situation, it will also adjust to all your new responsibilities.

Here are some steps to help you manage the situation. You should always keep in your mind in the cycle of life, it is natural that we take care of our parents after all the years they spent taking care of us.

Step 1: Avoid conflicts…

Avoiding conflicts in your personal life is not always easy (sometimes impossible) but nevertheless you should try your best. Talk to the people in your life. Ask for help from your family members and those who are directly involved in this situation. Also talk to the people indirectly involved like your friends and lover. Let them know about your plans to take care of your ill parent and that this might keep you busy for awhile. Tell them they can help you out by sending your family positive thoughts (or praying if they pray), and by being understanding of your commitment.

Step 2: Choose the best place…

Depending on the nature of the illness and your parent’s general health, you should choose a suitable and comfortable place for them to stay. While the hospital may bring YOU the most peace of mind because of the ever-present health care staff… consider your parent’s state of mind also… will your parent be happy and optimistic there? Do they need nurses and doctors 24/7? If you can financially afford it, maybe you could hire a nurse to visit your parent in their home.

If you do decide to keep your parent at home make sure it’s also equipped with all the things needed and services their condition requires. Also be sure to have the ambulance or the doctor’s numbers ready.

Step 3: Adjust your old daily routine…

If you are a career woman, it may seem impossible to add taking care of your ill parent full time. But it is doable- you need to do is find or hire a few reliable and intelligent people who can replace you while you’re unavailable. If you ORGANIZE and MONITOR the services and care that they are receiving to meet their needs, you are doing your job. Setting up resources to support them is a big help even if you can’t do all the tasks personally.

Step 4: Make your parent *Laugh*…

Yes, you’ve read it right. Make your parent laugh! Jokes! Stories! If you haven’t got any original jokes then buy a book of really funny jokes or just recall funny moments from the past. Or tell a quirky anecdote from your day. Laughter helps the sick feel better by lowering your body’s cortisol level (a.k.a the stress hormone). Dr. Stanley Tan and Dr. Lee Berk of the Loma Linda University Medical Center, demonstrated in their research on the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) that our emotions can directly affect our immune system’s functions. Patients tested who were observed to have watched and laughed at funny videos showed lower levels of the immunosuppressive hormones (epinephrine and cortisol) than those who did not. Also their experiment showed that laughing helps our immune system produce NK or Natural Killer cells that fight off the agents causing the disease.

Laughing is not a guaranteed cure your for your parent, but at least you know for sure that “laughter is the best medicine” as it releases Endorphins (neurotransmitters that attach to our brain cells and works like an opium but without the side effects). It will be more fun for you too if you are laughing!

Step 5: Don’t forget ME time…

Another topic researched by the doctors referenced above was that stress INCREASES bad hormones like cortisol which weakens our immune system. So when you feel that YOU are stressed out by the uncertainty, the increased workload and the sadness you’ve been experiencing, make sure to ask for BACK UP when you need it….. and take some time off for *yourself*. Remember you are ALREADY a superhero for taking on this important and time consuming responsibility… so take some time to rest and socialize with others to get your energy back. You are going to be NO help to your parent if you run yourself into the ground.

I hope that these steps help you if you are in the situation of caring for a parent. Never be afraid to reach out to others. When you do, you will be surprised by how many people are going through the same thing. It helps to know you are not alone. Best of luck!

Have you ever had to take care of a sick relative or friend?