Aging Parents: Hurtful, Puzzling, Unwarrented, Criticism

We change the focus a bit today–old grandparents, instead of aging parents. But the situation is, I think, generic and applicable to either generation as we try to help them to age well.

I was with a former colleague this week. We began with the usual “how are you” to which he replied: “I’m really tired. I had such a hard night last night–couldn’t sleep. My grandmother’s in the hospital.” (My first thought was that she was dying…but no. In all probability she was going home the next day.)

Our conversation continued. I learned he and his mother had visited his 92-year-old grandmother the night before. She asked for a glass of water with ice, which his mother left the room to get. When she returned, she gave the glass to her mother who complained there was too much ice and too much water.

Wanting to be helpful, her grandson (my former colleague), tossed some of the ice in the waste basket and took some gulps of water to reduce the water level, whereupon his grandmother criticized him saying something like “I don’t want a glass you’ve put your lips to.”

My former colleague said he was puzzled, hurt (to say the least). Then elaborated: “I’m her favorite grandchild, I’m the oldest. Since I was four years old we’ve always done things together, always been in touch. I said to her ‘Look we’re the same family–what kind of germs do you think you’re going to get from me?'”

A bit of a defensive remark to be sure; but probably the way most of us would respond to an unappreciative, critical comment from a cared-about aging parent, grandparent, relative or older friend. And we most likely don’t feel good about it afterward.

But we can understand–and have sympathy for–the 92-year-old grandmother’s response. Let’s get picky and examine the circumstances since these kinds of situations happen often–only the specifics will differ.

When we’re accustomed to feeling we have control (and this is a feeling–and a reality–that keeps aging parents and others engaged in life), don’t we fight to keep it? Being in a hospital, at least for me at a much younger age, greatly reduced feelings of having control. In fact depending on the circumstance we may feel helpless, definitely frustrated, and these feelings are probably intensified for an older person for reasons I think we can all understand.

Thus, to gain some feeling of control (in this case over the way she wants her water), the grandmother sets standards and asserts herself, at the expense of her grandson. Although it came across that way, it wasn’t really criticism of her grandson. It was the expression of a greater need she had for control.

On a similar note I remember when my 93-year-old father gave up driving and was riding with me. On routes that we had taken a million times together, he would tell me–timing it perfectly–“turn right” or “turn left.” He no longer drove, was no longer in control, but the need to have some control getting us to our destination was still there.

We are sensitive adult children or we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing and caring the way we care. And our emotions will take bruising–if not battering–at times. (Note: I remember a list of things counselors should NOT do that my professor stressed many years ago. It included taking things personally, whereupon he said basically “If it’s a family member forget it. Your immediate reaction will be emotional.”) My former colleague’s reaction–so normal.

Understanding the motivation of aging parents, grandparents and others when we feel criticized, lectured to, unnecessarily “helped” and unappreciated is important–not only to help parents age well, but to help ourselves.

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