Remember when we thought our parents would live forever? As children, we never gave it a second thought. But now, as adults, we have to face the sad reality of watching our parents slowly decline and become more frail, in mind and body. As they become more dependent on us and we become their caregivers, there is a momentous shift in the parent-child dynamic. We can tell ourselves that aging is all part of the passage of life but, when it becomes a stark reality, we struggle with feelings of helplessness, guilt, frustration, and grief.
Every individual reacts to issues – situational or emotional. And our instinctive coping mechanism can often be the well-known “fight or flight” response. Some of us may choose to walk away, a self-preserving choice that brings guilt along for the ride. Others may want to help to repair the damage in some way. But where and how do we begin with such an overwhelming and seemingly impossible task to change the world?
How can we work together with family members and healthcare professionals to care for our elderly loved ones in a healthy, mindful and respectful way? How can we come to understand and accept the rules and regulations of a healthcare system when we feel they don’t necessarily work best for our loved one?
In the upcoming Conference on Compassionate Approaches to Aging and Dying, Dr. Elaine Yuen, Chair of the Wisdom Traditions Department and an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Naropa University, explores the personal and institutional challenges of aging and dying from the perspectives of patients, families and health care professionals.
Respectful, effective communication, Dr. Yuen emphasizes, is the key to successfully navigating the confusing labyrinth of our health care system. As we consider our personal values and ethics, we have to assess how our beliefs compare to the healthcare system’s institutional beliefs and ethics in specific situations. We may not agree with the standardized norms of what health care is today, but we have to learn to work within that system’s parameters, particularly in relation to aging and end-of-life care.
As our society continues to evolve, we are re-evaluating the culture of aging and dying. Our mind set shifts and we may no longer hold on to the traditional culture of end-of-life care. As we inevitably face the challenges of aging and dying, Dr. Yuen believes that contemplative practices can enrich and improve end-of-life care for the dying, their families and practitioners. She emphasizes how patients, families and healthcare professionals can communicate collectively and effectively to explore new ways of enacting contemplative care.
Dr. Yuen points out that often, in highly charged situations that are not going our way, our reactions are to become angry and react strongly, which inevitably causes the situation to escalate. Dr. Yuen encourages us to learn to be more effective by bringing our contemplative presence to the stressful environment. Self-knowledge of how we respond to situations is an essential component of a shared dialog that will enable us to approach issues and find meaningful solutions. By becoming more self-reflective and maintaining mutually respectful communication, both parties will come to understand each other’s viewpoint, and significant progress can be made from that awareness.
Dr. Yuen encourages us not to lose sight of our loved ones’ wishes in our efforts to ensure that they are receiving the best care. Dying patients are often still actively involved in living, and the ability to recognize this can extend our capacity for empathy.
Families and professionals should cultivate an environment of compassion and empathy as they assist their loved one in moving through the various stages of dying, with the ultimate goal of making them comfortable, both physically and spiritually. Dying is a part of life’s journey and we should learn to embrace it as such.
Dr. Elaine Yuen is Chair of the Wisdom Traditions Department and an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where she teaches courses on spirituality pastoral caregiving (chaplaincy), contemplative education, ethics, and Buddhist studies.
Dr. Yuen received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, and was an Associate Professor, researcher, and interfaith chaplain at Thomas Jefferson University. She has lectured on caregiving, end of life issues, Buddhism, and cultural diversity at professional conferences, colleges and universities.
Dr. Yuen’s research interests include exploring the relationships between ethics, social context, and contemplative modalities, as well as meditation and healthy aging. She has been a regular columnist for the “Living Religion” page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and continues exploration of contemporary contemplative life through many activities as a parent, artist, and researcher.Dr. Elaine Yuen