Carolyn Hax: How much time can ailing father expect?

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 2D

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. My parents are left with little social support. My mother has completely neglected her own health in caring for him.

I've been using all my spare vacation time to see them (the only thing that seems to help their spirits), 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 in which we wouldn't find jobs elsewhere. We're recently married and our lives are just beginning.

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?

– L.

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, options and the number of hours in a day. You cannot fix this. You can only be loving and present (and not hyperventilate).

"Present" isn't a typo: You can be there without traveling. Call, video chat, send care packages, make photo albums, 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. If they insist on your full attention regardless, then nipping that bud can be your husband's main contribution to your cause.

Another key step: letting go of the idea that you bear sole responsibility for lifting your parents' spirits. They are adults, they have chosen not to move closer to you, and so they deserve some respect for their autonomy. Such blunt thinking may seem odd now, but it will reward you later in pre-empted future regrets.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ carolyn.hax, or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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