When aging parents can no longer do for themselves…
If we agree that we are our parents’ children; if we acknowledge parents’ natural desire to have their children look up to them with respect; how do we reconcile a popular belief (or is it an attitude?) that when parents get to the point where they can no longer do for themselves and we must take over responsibilities similar to those of parents with young children–we become parents to our parents?
Shortly after publication of her book, They’re Your Parents Too, Francine Russo, spoke to a group in NY last year. I asked her thoughts about being parents to our parents when they become dependent. Her response was to the effect that feeding a parent isn’t the same as feeding an infant. The task may be the same; the relationship is entirely different.
Do we see ourselves as parenting our spouse if he or she has disabilities or neurological problems that require us to do the caregiving dependent parents may require? I think not. With parents, as well with a spouse, isn’t respect and upholding dignity an overarching aspect of the relationship? Regardless of the situation or duties required of us, can that be ignored?
A friend who instinctively does it right took care of her elderly father after surgery that left him temporarily incontinent. Wanting to maintain her father’s dignity and sensing his unease when she had to help with certain things she quipped “Dad, I’ve been married for a long time now–don’t you think I’ve seen it before?”
I haven’t forgotten her sharing this with me some time ago. I remember thinking what an adult, respectful way to handle an awkward situation.
Since we can’t get inside people’s heads to know how much they’re processing (even when we may think “nothing,”) can we take the risk of making a loved one feel like a child? We may be devoting ourselves to help aging parents, we can feel weary, exhausted, and unappreciated. But is it worth undoing it all if–even for a nanosecond–we make our parents feel diminished?
I remember my mother at one point after her stroke saying something like “I took care of you as a child and now you’re taking care of me.” I also remember my response (which I must admit to this day I’m happy to think I made). It was something like “You’re right, Mom, and you know what–now it’s payback time so don’t give it a second thought.”
I do think when we help parents age well–or at least as well as possible– and with dignity right up to the end, we have few–if any–regrets. And that’s a gift we not only give our parents–but ourselves as well.
Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.