Getting old is a challenge. For many people, it is probably the ultimate test in life as they realize they are not invincible and that their mortality is a reality. As each day goes by, their strength, vitality and overall physical condition weaken. They may find that everyday activities are harder to get through and that they don’t bounce back as quickly.
Aging is also difficult for family members. Those of us who have walked with our parents through the final stages of their lives have experienced this hardship. There is an unnatural role reversal, where those who took care of you through your life now need you to take care of them. This dependence can be taxing on your time and finances and cause a heavy emotional burden for you to carry. How do you handle this painful process? How do you approach this situation with grace and sensitivity?
The Burden Of Empathy
Empathy is usually seen in a positive light. We consider it a noble venture to feel another’s pain and try to understand their plight. That may be true, but there is a limit to empathy. If we go through life feeling the pain of all the people around us who are hurting, we will quickly become overwhelmed and overloaded. This is especially true when caring for ailing elders, whose typical day can be full of suffering.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 85% of caregivers care for a relative, with 49% of them taking care of a parent or parent-in-law. This refers to any level of care, from a few hours a week to a full-time situation. The report shows that caring for a parent is more emotionally stressful, especially for those who feel they have no choice in taking on the caregiver role.
We want to show respect and repay all the love and care that was invested in us, but how do we do it without burning out? (For related reading, see: How to Parent Your Aging Parents.)
Compassion, Not Empathy
A recent Wall Street Journal article by psychologist Paul Bloom shows us an alternative perspective. He declares that the emphasis should be on compassion, not empathy. According to a neuroscience study in Current Biology, compassion is distinguished from empathy in that it doesn’t mean sharing in the suffering others. Instead, compassion is centered on concern, care and a desire to improve the other’s well being. It’s about feeling for someone, not with them.
If you are in a season of walking through some trials with your parents, compassion will make more of a difference than empathy. Your parents don’t need someone to feel their pain, but someone who can support, encourage, and treat them with kindness and respect. It’s a difficult road to walk, but one on which our parents need us. Have you seen this concept of compassion versus empathy play out in your life? Have you, or are you currently, watching your parents age and struggle as they enter the final phase of life? As someone who has been through it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
(For more from this author, see: What Is the Most Important Financial Lesson?)