A Caregiver’s Guide to Compassion
Taking care of an aging parent can be challenging… even exasperating at times. Here’s how one daughter found patience, forgiveness, and a fresh outlook in the process.
By Irene Petryszak
My father and I had just had a rip-roaring fight—the door-slamming, get-in-your-car-and-swear-you’ll-never-come-back kind. This was familiar territory—when I was 20, I left my parents’ house in anger and didn’t return for five long years. Now, 30 years later, my mother had recently died, and I knew that if I got in the car and drove away from my father this time, I would never come back.
But during the past three decades I had been studying yoga, and in my heart I knew it would be wrong to leave. I also sensed that it would affect my spiritual practice. How could I sit and meditate when I was abandoning my 80-year-old grieving father by himself—a father with Parkinson’s, no less? In desperation I called my teacher, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. He gently reminded me of the two main principles of yoga described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment).
Abhyasa is the commitment to continue a systematic spiritual practice without interruption—no matter the circumstances—so that we can cultivate a healthy body, clarity of mind, and a sense of peace and joy. Vairagya is the contemplation of the impermanence of life—the understanding that everything is changing except for our true nature, which is divine and eternal. The two concepts work together hand in hand.
Panditji told me that I was suffering because I was attached to my role as my father’s daughter. Since I wasn’t getting what I wanted from him, I did not want to give him what he wanted from me as a daughter. We were at a stalemate. What I needed to do, Panditji said, was to detach from my identity as my father’s daughter, let go of my expectations of him, and remember my true nature as the daughter of the Divine. Then I could draw on this higher source of nurturance to maintain equanimity, and support my father in the ways that he needed.
I had to mentally prepare myself to transform the experience of taking care of my father into a spiritual practice—to see the sacred in the mundane. This, for me, was the essence of abhyasa. And I had to let go of my deep-seated desire to have a father who could love me in the way that I wanted, and learn how to accept and love him for who he was. This was vairagya.
Prayer and Perspective
So instead of storming out that day I stayed and made peace with my father before I started the five-hour drive from his home in Buffalo, New York, back to the Pennsylvania yoga community where I live. At the time, he was still healthy enough to manage on his own, so I would come up and spend a week with him every month. Before each trip I would pray for patience and compassion.
An immigrant, my father moved to Buffalo from the Ukraine in 1951, the year I was born, to work at the Bethlehem Steel Company. When I was growing up, he would come home from work and drink. Alcohol made him emotional, and verbally abusive, and it was the reason I left home when I was 20.
Over the next three decades, we had a stormy, distant relationship—I could never do anything right in his eyes, and he never forgave me for leaving home. But now as I prayed I tried to understand him. During WWII, when he was 16, he was forcibly taken by Russian soldiers from his parents’ home in Ternopil to work in a labor camp, never to see his family again.
His memories were haunting, and I realized that he’d been trying to numb them with alcohol. I tried to imagine how scared and lonely he must have felt during the war. Even though he had created a comfortable life in America, in his mind, every night, he was still trapped in the labor camp. So on my monthly drive to Buffalo, I would mentally send him light and love. I visualized our common bond—the divine spark which connected us on a deeper level, beyond the limited thoughts and feelings, the roles and ideas we had of each other. I tried to hold that image even as I walked in the door and he barked: “Who asked you to come? Go away!”
It wasn’t easy, but I kept at it. I maintained as much of my regular hatha and meditation practice as I could, both to keep myself centered and to offset the negative energy in the house.
At first when I started my visits I would blow into my father’s house like a 60-mile-an-hour wind, with a hyped-up, let’s-scrub-this-place-clean attitude. I would go into the bedroom and start pulling the sheets off his bed to wash them, and he would get all flustered and yell, “No, no, stop.” Then I would get frustrated because I had come to help and he wasn’t letting me. The first time he resisted me so vehemently, I was reduced to pounding on the bedroom wall in despair before he finally let me change the sheets. Clearly this was not abhyasa and vairagya in action.
So I slowed down. I remembered to practice diaphragmatic breathing before I did anything. Again I tried to see things from his perspective, and I started to notice that it took his mind a while to process what I was asking him to do. He wasn’t necessarily resisting me—he just needed time to think about it. I learned to ask direct questions clearly and simply, one at a time.
On the first day of the next trip, I merely mentioned that perhaps we should wash the sheets. He said, “No, they don’t need it.” And I simply replied, “Okay.” Then the next day I brought it up again, and he said, “We’ll see.” On the third day he asked, “Why don’t we change the sheets today?” and helped me. After a few more visits, he would bring up changing the sheets before I did.
His desire to help with the sheets (when it would have been so much faster to do it myself) made me realize that he wanted to spend time doing things with me. It was his way of feeling useful but also his way of trying to connect. He was a doer, not a talker, so he didn’t know how else to communicate.
I looked for other activities we could do together. He was happy when he cooked and he liked telling me what to do; I liked spending time with him when he was happy, so I enjoyed being his assistant. Cooking and sharing meals became a way for us to heal the deep emotional pain between us.
Ram Dass once said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a weekend with your parents.” It’s true. If you’re willing to be a detached observer (vairagya) and be honest with yourself, your parents can be clear mirrors of where you are and what you still have to work on—it can be a humbling experience.
For instance, I thought my father was very stubborn. We had an ongoing battle about my habit of wearing a watch indoors. He kept telling me to take it off. I refused. Then one day it occurred to me that I was as stubborn as he was, so I took off the watch. I could finally do it out of respect for his wishes, rather than as my ego giving in to his. When I stopped fighting him, I noticed that he’d do little things for me, too, like stocking the fridge with my favorite foods.
The more I was willing to see my father as his own person, the deeper I could see my own core issues. Even though the ways we chose to deal with life were different, at the heart of things, we were very much the same. The more I could accept him, the more I could accept myself.
Handle with Care
None of this was easy. Being compassionate with my father was an uphill practice for the seven years until he died. But abhyasa is about being consistent, about practicing without a break. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to get angry or frustrated. These are natural feelings; as caregivers, if we don’t nurture ourselves, our body and mind will begin to rebel.
So I found it was important to take time for myself every day. Just walking briskly around the neighborhood helped. When I could, I would drive to the marina, sit on the rocks, and let the essence of the sun, air, earth, and water fill me with natural healing.
Sometimes the strain of taking care of an elderly parent at home becomes too much. My sister (who had moved in with my father) and I had to make the heartbreaking decision to put him in a nursing home for the last month of his life. Some of my friends, however, were able to nurse their parents at home until the end and found it to be a fulfilling experience. There is no right or wrong answer; each situation is unique. What is important is to make a commitment to see it through with honesty, openness, and compassion.
Peace at Last
The real turning point in my relationship with my father came when I was able to ask for his forgiveness for leaving home 30 years earlier. I had been waiting all those years for him to tell me how sorry he was for drinking and “ruining my life.” Then one day I realized I needed to apologize for hurting him. He asked me why I had left and I said I had been scared. He nodded as if he understood. And just like that, the venom between us was gone.
It is only when we stop fighting and begin to resolve our relationships, when we detach from our expectations and relate to our loved ones from our higher self, that we can find peace. By weaving the yogic principles of systematic practice and non-attachment into the experience of taking care of my father, I was able to reach new depths of compassion and understanding. My spiritual practice not only gave me the strength and clarity to forgive and to ask for forgiveness, it gave me the peaceful resolution with my father that I had been longing for all my life.
Senior editor Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak has been teaching yoga philosophy for the last 20 years.