Adult Children and Their Parents
Adult children frequently find caring for their aging parents very frustrating. “He’s been taking that medication for 20 years! How can he not remember to take it now?” “Their house is a mess, and I don’t have the time to do it for them.” I’ve never met anyone more stubborn, in my life,than my mother, now that Dad’s gone.” The litany goes on. Where does all that frustration come from, what does it mean, and is there any cure for it?
As young children of comparatively young parents, we looked to our parents for guidance, role models, safety and security. Our parents weren’t perfect, but they generally did their best for us. We got frustrated with them then, too, but under different circumstances and for different reasons. When we were teenagers, our parents often didn’t agree with our adolescent decisions and choices, whether over the clothes we wanted to wear, the music we listened to, the friends we chose, or the places we wanted to go. We thought we were old enough to make those decisions. We were invincible, with little concern for the statistics that showed clearly we were not invincible.
As adult children caring for their aging parents, we now see that tables have turned a bit. We may not have had any experience caring for elders, whether the issue is compliance with medication protocols, or driving safety. It’s not our having to replicate the parenting our parents did for us, where we were wanting more freedom in decision making. It’s the opposite: where Mom and/or Dad previously managed their home independently, we now come in to assist when they cannot function so independently. Where they previously managed their health without assistance, they can no longer easily swallow a pill, or read the scale, or reach the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Parents prepare their children for ever more frequent and longer separations. Stubborness on the part of the cared-for is viewed by the carer as a trait to be channeled into accommodation or adaptation. Adult children prepare their parents for ever more frequent and more intense assistance. And stubbornness on the part of the aging parent is often an effort to preserve one’s independence in the face of decreasing abilities. Linus is holding on to his blanket, and we are urging him to accept more assistance and less independence.
So, what do we, the adult children do? We react. We are frightened by their unsafe decisions, flabbergasted by the irrationality of their decisions, and fearful of the consequences of those irrational decisions. We make it about us, and not about them.
But how can we make it about them? It’s new and challenging to us. We have few good role models to use, unless you were lucky enough to have been part of an extended family care situation at some point in your life. It’s interfering with our adult lives where we are parenting our own kids, or taking care of our own ailing spouse.
Put your frustration in perspective. Your mom would not have called you, in the middle of your work and kiddo carpool day, if she hadn’t needed you. Listen to her: she’s given you an overture to participate in her changing life. Reach out and hug her, over the phone, share her anguish over her having had a fender bender that totalled her car. Much as you are annoyed by the whole incident, take her side and say “Let’s talk about how we’re going to get you from point A to point B…”
It’s brutally difficult when there is a major safety issue involved. Your dad set the microwave on fire when he set it for 20 minutes instead of 20 seconds? He fell and broke his hip when he reached for something on a shelf? She forgot to call in a refill for Lasix and can’t breathe very well? You recall what happened when similar things happened to you as a kid, with your parents shrieking “What were you thinking? You could have set the house on fire, you could have been killed, you could have died!” But the issue here isn’t the same preparation for independence. It’s the reality that your parents need some supports and assistance that you feel unable to provide, it’s the possibility of a referral to Adult Social Services. It’s the possibility that your mom or dad have some form of dementia, and the reality that you cannot fix it. It produces the very visceral fight or flight reflex.
Take a deep breath. Reach out and say “let’s plan how we can keep you safe and happy here.” Adult Protective Services can help assess the capacity of an individual to continue to live independently, and how to make the simple modifications that will support continued independence, and they can point you in other directions if other options are needed.
One important option is to see whether there’s a Village nearby. Forbes Magazine has suggested that everyone planning for retirement should include a Village in their options. And if you are reading this, you know that CvilleVillage is in development, and you have an opportunity to influence what it does for both you and your aging parent. — Helen