You cannot fix his illness or make it OK

This is an archived article that was published on in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dear Carolyn • I have an aging father with a health condition that is likely terminal, with few treatment options. I live far away from him and my mother, and my half siblings don't make much of an effort to see him. My parents are left with little social support and so many painful unknowns. My mother especially has completely neglected her own health in caring for him. I've been turning myself inside out, using all my spare vacation time to see them, to the exclusion of visits with my husband's family and of time for my husband and me alone. My parents refuse to move closer because my dad is inordinately attached to his doctors at home. I can't move home because my husband and I both work in a field where we wouldn't find jobs elsewhere. How do I do right by my parents and give them the time with my husband and me that they so enjoy and deserve? How do I do right by my relationship and not make my life all about my parents' needs? How do I do right by myself as I increasingly feel exhausted by my father's increasingly desperate journey?


Dear L. • I'm sorry — it's a tough phase of life regardless of location and resources. The first and most important step is to redefine "do right by." The new version has to account for the limits on your energy, flexibility, options and the number of hours in a day. You cannot fix this or make it OK. You can only be loving and present. "Present" isn't a typo: You can be there without traveling. Call, video chat, handle any chores for them that you can by phone or online, , use whatever resourcefulness you can muster. Research support groups and respite care for your mom — underscore this on your list. Another important step is to embrace triage. Yes, your husband's family deserves your attention, too — but surely they can be patient or come to you during your family's crisis. As long as you are prepared to be just as generous with them when their needs are higher, you're right with the cosmos on this. Think of the near future as a phase where you allot X time daily, Y monthly, to this crisis. Decide X and Y in cooperation with your husband to keep that crucial relationship fed.

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