Your Parent Isn’t Your Toddler

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!

Break the Taboo and Talk About Death!

Some topics just seem taboo. Like talking about death. Certainly, if you suspect that someone who is talking a lot about death may be suicidal, then, by all means, act to get help.

But what about discussing end-of-life issues? I fear we do not do this early and often enough as families. The thing is, we think about this in different ways at different ages.

When you’re single, just getting started in a career or flitting around trying to find yourself, then contemplating end-of-life issues may seem like a downer. But does it have to be? Maybe at this stage in life, writing something down about your wishes is more about taking responsibility for yourself and making sure someone can speak for you if you can’t speak for yourself. Write it down.

If you choose to start a family and have children, then the landscape changes drastically. Perhaps now it is important to ponder what you want to happen in order to protect your children. Write it down.

If you are heading into middle age or even pre-retirement, then the focus might be more on to what extent you want certain measures to take place. To what extent do you want to have your life extended? This may be the same or it may have shifted. Take a look. Discuss it with people you love and who may be in a position to make your wishes known. Write it down.

When you are a senior and looking at the horizon with a different perspective, then it’s a good time to check in on those wishes. To what extent do you want to stay in your home? To what extent do you want your family to care for you? To what extent do you want your financial resources to go to keep you in your home? What’s your greatest concern about the end of life? What sorts of measures do you want to happen to extend your life? What is acceptable to you and what is not acceptable? What’s most important? Write it down.

If you are married or in a partnership, make sure the two of you do this together.

Best to do this in the form of a will and if you haven’t done it yet. A will is essential to avoid the cost of probate. While probate is not always horrible, it means the “state” will determine how your assets are distributed. Even if you think you have nothing, you likely have something. Do you want to have a say in where it goes? Write it down.

Forming a trust for your money and any assets also protects those assets.

Next – if you want your children to care for you rather than going into Assisted Living or Nursing home, you need to plan for that financially. Make this a savings priority. That is the greatest gift you can give your children. Talk to them about this. And of course, Write it down.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for families to talk, talk, talk and talk some more about their end of life wishes, to communicate them and to write them down. The time to make these types of decisions is well before the crisis hits. The time to save money is not at the end.

My children are adults now – young adults – and they have created legal documents detailing their wishes for the end of their lives. They’ve named people who they want to help make sure those wishes are carried out. They used a document anyone can use. It’s called “Five Wishes”.

You can get it at: http://www.FivesWishes.org

Finally, if you want your family or others to be involved in your care at the end of your life, then the best you can do is build a good relationship with your children and others such that they WANT to care for you, you take care of your finances such that your children have the funds necessary to carry out your wishes, and you make your wishes known.

Write it down.

Tough Choice? OWN Your Decision

A few months ago, I was with a group of friends, and while talking with two women, I learned how one was now caring for her Mother In Law.  It was a change in plans for her and her husband, and it meant putting some things on hold.  The other friend talked about how her mother would likely come live with her and her husband when necessary.  Both felt very positive about their decisions, even if it meant life changed or would change.  I did not get a sense of “Poor me.  This is such a burden.”  It was a life choice and they could own it.  That is powerful.

There are many ways we can care for our aging parents.  Many people are able to age in place and stay in their homes. Some will move in with family. And then some will need more care for any number of reasons. My parents both had had good experiences with their aging parents living in Assisted Living facilities.

For my mother, it was a relatively easy choice.  We lived in Ohio and my grandfather lived in Oakland, CA.  He fell and broke his hip and had to go to a Skilled Nursing Facility for some time.  My mother’s Aunt, who also lived in the Bay Area, was able to find a place that was attached to an Assisted Living program, so that made the transition easier.  My grandfather lived another 13 years.  He thrived with the interaction and community. I believe he was quite popular, especially with the ladies!

My Dad’s parents moved to a community that also offered a continuum of care.  My grandfather needed a lot more help than my grandmother, initially, but she had long given up driving by that time, so for her, being in a place that gave her opportunities for an increased social life was wonderful.  She also became quite the popular diva!

So when my parents retired and moved from Ohio to Roseville, CA, they had already secured a long-term healthcare plan that would provide for Assisted Living.  They were adamant that this was what they wanted.  They did not want to live with any of us, three kids. They knew what they were getting into because they had thought long and hard about it.

Eventually, they did choose to live in an Assisted Living facility. They picked it out after we looked at many. They liked it because their doctor told them his parents were there. Recommendations, my friends! Like a good restaurant! Apartment for two – no waiting. It worked for them for a while, but eventually, when they each needed more care, they were able to move to another lovely place, that cost an arm and a leg. But that Long-Term health care insurance they had purchased really came through. They were able to choose what they wanted for themselves and for us kids.

However, after my father died, a friend of my parents called me to tell me I should have my mother come live with me.  Take her out of “that place,” he insisted. He was adamant that this is what she would want, even if it meant having a hospital bed in our living room, which is what he did for his mother years ago.  When I told him I knew quite well what my mother’s wishes were, he told me I didn’t really know her and that I was wrong.  I definitely struggled with this feedback, and I resented it.  Who was he to tell me he knew my mother better than me?  I felt judged.  I felt shamed!

I believe he meant well. I don’t believe for a minute he wanted to hurt me in any way. In some way, perhaps, he needed to justify his own choice for his mother. But, there are many ways we can care for our parents.  If we make those decisions with our heart and with love for not just our parents, but our own families’ needs as well, then we generally make the best decisions.  There is no one right way.

In fact, I often say, “There are multiple right answers to most questions!”

We hear of “Mommy shaming” these days.  There’s Sandwich Generation shaming, also.  This is NOT helpful.  This doesn’t move the discussion forward, and it doesn’t serve any person.  Only you know your family, your parents, your unique “big picture.” Do what you can to make the most empowering decision for you, and it is likely to be the best.

Then, OWN IT!

I’ve come to believe the best thing we can do is own our decision.  Owning our decision gives us the power to make the best decisions moving forward.  Talking with more and more Sandwich Generation folks – like my friends – is making that abundantly clear. So number – let’s be kind out there! And number two – let’s own our choices!

A New Journey

Watch out! I am up to something. I’m taking the plunge and doing something I have always wanted to do. I am writing a book -taking a year’s leave of absence from my school psych position and diving into unknown spaces.

I went on a long journey not long ago. Many of you have been on the same journey, or will eventually take the same journey. It is not an easy one by any means. It is a journey of self-discovery, pain and joy, and oftentimes, one of immeasurable grace. It is sometimes long and sometimes short. No one’s journey is the same because there is no clearly marked path. No guidebook. It is the journey of time spent in the Sandwich Generation.

Sandwich Generation. I am not particularly fond of that label, but it fits. People of the Sandwich Generation are those folks who have children living in their home (even adult children) and aging parents that require some sort of ongoing care. The name evokes poor analogies – am I the Cheese or the Meat? Mustard or Mayo? Pickles or Onions? It’s a silly name and yet quite apt. I know I often felt like a smooshed piece of cheese at times. Or too little mayo to spread across two large slices of bread is perhaps a better analogy. I know I felt squeezed for time, energy, emotional stamina, and thin on competence for the tasks before me. But until I can coin a better term, I’ll run with this one.  Continue reading “A New Journey”