When I saw a tweet mentioning “elderschadenfreude” in relation to aging parents, I had to know more. I followed the link and found a new article from The Atlantic magazine, simply titled Daddy Issues.
The title’s simplicity stands in stark contrast with the incredibly complex issues it explores. Writer Sandra Tsing Loh opens the piece with a bang (or perhaps more aptly, a punch to the gut), with the provocative tagline “why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die.” Set off by a stunning black-and-white photograph of her daddy, Loh holds nothing back as she launches into the thorny challenges undoubtedly plaguing sandwich caregivers everywhere.
Weaving the bittersweet and blind-siding experiences of prominent caregiving authors Gail Sheehy and Jane Gross with her own, Loh explores the layers — exhausting, rewarding, depressing, horrifying, uplifting — of the “caregiver’s journey.”
She suggests that it’s perfectly acceptable, and totally necessary, for caregivers to find comfort in their struggles by engaging in conversation with other caregivers. Consider this excerpt:
“I believe it is by enduring this very suffering and tedium that one can eventually tease out a certain dark, autumnal, delightfully-bitter-as-Fernet-Branca enjoyment, best described by some dense and complicated noun-ending German word. Elderschadenfreude is the subtle frisson of the horror tale that always begins so simply (“Mom slipped in the shower—at first she said it was nothing”) but makes listeners raise eyebrows, nod knowingly… It is the secret pleasure of hearing about aging parents that are even more impossible than yours.”
Perhaps you can relate?
Maybe you have found yourself talking to a friend — or total stranger — about having to try something new after your mom, who has dementia, wandered from the house in the middle of the night, or about your great uncle, who is being asked to leave the assisted living community he’s in because of sexually inappropriate behavior. Whatever heartbreaking, hair-pulling, anxiety-inducing issue you are facing with an aging parent or relative, there is someone else experiencing one like it… or worse. And knowing that, even hearing about it from someone else’s lips, is strangely comforting and imparts a feeling of, “Maybe I should count my blessings” or “guess I’m not the only one.”
Though brilliantly written, Loh’s article is a painful read at times, as she unflinchingly and explicitly elucidates on her trials with her father, past and present. Despite their struggles as father and daughter, caregiver and care recipient, I believe that anyone who has been a caregiver can identify with these poignant words:
“The paradox is, I can’t miss the good things about my father while he is alive, but I will of course miss him … when he is dead…I can no longer think of my dad as my ‘father.’ But I recognize in him something as familiar to me as myself. To the end, stubborn, babyish, life-loving…”
Of course there are moments of deep personal fulfillment, intimacy, and even spiritual growth when caring for an aging parent or relative, but those bright spots may be few and far between (especially if the parent or relative is not “a loved one”). In those darker days, in those minutes or even hours of wishing that the person would die, would be released from suffering, remember that you are not alone. Find a way to vent your frustrations, fears, and fantasies about the person’s death to someone who will understand and affirm these murky feelings, then empower you to embrace the hidden joys of the experience.
Your turn: How do you find joy in caregiving‘s most complex challenges?