One of the most difficult issues I faced while caring for my parents was becoming aware of how much I did not know about how to care for them, and how much my relationship with them changed. It is very disorienting to realize you have become the parent to YOUR parent. We had traveled to new dimensions, and I wasn’t prepared!
I think I had an idea that my parents would never really change and that they would always be the lively, fun, witty parents from my childhood. My father had a stroke around age 60 before I was married and had children. He lost his sharp wit and some of his confidence after that. He also lost his job earlier than expected. This diminished him in ways many older people face – typically men from this “Silent Generation.” But he persevered and moved with my Mom from Ohio to California to live in an active senior area to golf and travel and have fun. They did have fun, too. Very active. Very happy. And then they aged – slowly at first and then quickly at the end. To see them change so much – to have lost so much of what I was used to, and what I know they were used to – was heartbreaking. And recognizing changes in our relationship was difficult, also. I didn’t want to “parent” my own parents.
The challenge for me became taking on the role of helping them, maintaining healthy boundaries, and finding a way to treat them with the regard and respect they deserved from me. In other words, I had to learn how to care for them without treating them like toddlers.
What is the difference between parenting children and supporting parents?
Are we “parenting” our parents, or is it another dimension in the relationship? There isn’t a great deal of literature along this line. Most articles identify this conundrum as particularly difficult, but it hasn’t really been identified as a space on the continuum of human development.
I recall a family friend whose father was in late stages of Alzheimer’s disease told me she was frustrated when people tried to console her by suggesting, “He’s not your father anymore.” While the comment was likely offered with best intentions, she bristled. “He is still my father!”
While we hear about that spry 95-year-old who is as alert now as when he or she was 30, in general, all humans will experience some level of diminished capacity in terms of mobility, control of bodily functions, mental alertness, and judgment. It really does appear that as we age, we go from dependent to independent to dependent again. We start life wearing diapers and we seem to end life wearing them too. For those of us caring for aging parents, from an emotional standpoint, it’s just damn difficult to buy adult diapers alongside your toddler’s pull-ups.
Feelings of anger, disgust, sadness, despair, confusion, and even humor can enter the picture for the caregiver. This is normal. We are human and our reactions – whatever they may be – are normal. It is irrational to expect that we can witness this tremendous shift in our parents’ abilities and not experience strong emotions. This is a time when we need to be gentle with ourselves. We are socially conditioned to recognize the changes in our children. There are countless parenting books, endless tomes on child development to alert us to our children’s changing needs in body, mind, and spirit. There are books on the aging process, but we don’t tend to devour those with quite the same speed. Perhaps it is too hard emotionally to explore – so again – we must be gentle with ourselves.
Perhaps we need to check our mindset. When we can rationally acknowledge that this is in fact, normal and expected, and something we, too will likely experience, we can start to shift from a position of feeling overwhelmed, sad, disgusted or angry to acceptance
I recall the first time I had to buy diapers for my dad. I had such mixed feelings. I experienced shame at the register, hoping the checker didn’t think they were for me. I think I probably made a comment about getting these for my dad – ha, ha! It’s quite likely the checker at Costco didn’t look closely at any item in my stash. But I felt so strange buying them. Then I thought about my dad. How hard must it have been for him to ask me to pick them up for him? I recall a time my mother had me pick up some Poise panty protectors for her. She was so sheepish in asking for them. She made a pretty big deal about indicating they were “not diapers, but panty protectors”. When I stopped to think about how that must be for her, I found my compassion.
So what do we call this time period and how do we monitor our actions? It’s caregiving, but it’s not parenting. I think it is important to think through how we treat our parents during this time, too. Talking to them like we talk to our children is not great role modeling for our kids, either. But often thinking and judgment is impaired, especially for parents with any form of dementia. There is a way to be direct, concrete and get the message across without sounding like we are talking to a toddler. It will take some practice, this directness. But it is well worth it.
Mostly it’s important to remember that our parents likely don’t want it to be this way either.
Go gently with yourself, and go gently with your parent!