Aging Parents: Control and Respect–Do We Inadvertently Mess Up at Thanksgiving (and other times)?

                                        You may have received the Thanksgiving forward below–or not…

In any case, I share it. Supposedly it’s from a grandmother. Disregarding its length and the possibility that a non-grandmother created it, it conveys an important message–irreverently highlighting elders’ values–exaggerating basic, irksome things younger people, whether adult children or beloved grandchildren, do. Even if we don’t get caught up in the specifics or the humor, the need for elders to have control and respect comes through loud and clear.

I’ve become even more keenly aware recently. For Senior Advisor R, now 101, life has become hard work. There may be no other 101-year-old in this country who still lives alone in her own home of 65+ years, getting regular help only 4 hours a week from a cleaning person. Admittedly neighbors on both sides and across the street discretely watch out for her 24/7. I’ve written about this previously. They treasure her.

Maintaining control–basically of her well-being now, is her occupation. She wants to do things her way and resents what she considers interference from us or anyone else.The elasticity of her younger years is gone. Yet her appreciation of and concern for others continues and has always endeared people to her.

She is frazzled by anything that disrupts her routine–no deviation unless necessary; no unasked-for gifts (clutter); no surprises or unannounced visits–even from her 2-year-old great niece (her home is not childproof, she values her possessions); or from her son coming unexpectedly to do an errand she requested.

She considers it disrespectful.  She calls it “thoughtless” for people to take it for granted that she’s home so they can just drop in; or they talk too long on the phone, tiring her out because she can’t gracefully end the conversation; or they leave a gift on her doorstep that’s heavy (for her) to lift or requires additional care on her part. (Avoid giving any box filled with styrofoamish “peanuts.”)

Self-esteem. Dignity: so important in aging well. Being respected reinforces self-esteem. With a shrinking network of contacts, as people age, there’s a loss of the positive feedback from others that most of us regularly get often without even realizing it. We do a job well (we know and so does our boss or the people we do it for); we get the compliments; our dog greets us as if we’re the best person in the world.

And of course there’s the need for control, for feeling independent. ‘Nuf said.

Grandma’s Letter

Dear Family,

I’m not dead yet. Thanksgiving is still important to me. If being in my Last Will and Testament is important to you, then you might consider being with me for my favorite holiday.
Dinner is at 2:00. NOT 2:15. NOT 2:05. Two 2:00.
Arrive late and you get what’s left over.
Last year, that moron Marshall fried a turkey in one of those contraptions and practically burned the deck off the house. This year, the only peanut oil used to make the meal will be from the secret scoop of peanut butter I add to the carrot soup.
Jonathan, your last new wife was an idiot. You don’t arrive at someone’s house on Thanksgiving needing to use the oven and the stove. Honest to God, I thought you might have learned after two wives – date them longer and save us all the agony of another divorce.
Now, the house rules are slightly different. This year because I have decided that 47% of you don’t know how to take care of nice things. Paper plates and red Solo cups might be bad for the environment, but I’ll be gone soon and that will be your problem to deal with.
House Rules:
1. The University of Texas no longer plays Texas A&M. The television stays off during the meal.
2. The “no cans for kids” rule still exists. We are using 2 liter bottles because your children still open a third can before finishing the first two. Parents can fill a child’s cup when it is empty. All of the cups have names on them and I’ll be paying close attention to refills.
3. Chloe, last year we were at Trudy’s house and I looked the other way when your Jell-O salad showed up. This year, if Jell-O salad comes in the front door it will go right back out the back door with the garbage. Save yourself some time, honey. You’ve never been a good cook and you shouldn’t bring something that wiggles more than you. Buy something from the bakery.
4. Grandmothers give grandchildren cookies and candy. That is a fact of life. Your children can eat healthy at your home. At my home, they can eat whatever they like as long as they finish it.
5. I cook with bacon and bacon grease. That’s nothing new. Your being a vegetarian doesn’t change the fact that stuffing without bacon is like egg salad without eggs. Even the green bean casserole has a little bacon grease in it. That’s why it tastes so good. Not eating bacon is just not natural. And as far as being healthy… look at me. I’ve outlived almost everyone I know.
6. Salad at Thanksgiving is a waste of space.
7. I do not like cell phones. Leave them in the car.
8. I do not like video cameras. There will be 32 people here. I am sure you can capture lots of memories without the camera pointed at me.
9.Being a mother means you have to actually pay attention to the kids. I have nice things and I don’t put them away just because company is coming over. Mary, watch your kids and I’ll watch my things.
10. Rhonda, a cat that requires a shot twice a day is a cat that has lived too many lives. I think staying home to care for the cat is your way of letting me know that I have lived too many lives too. I can live with that. Can you?
11. Words mean things. I say what I mean. Let me repeat: You don’t need to bring anything means you don’t need to bring anything. And if I did tell you to bring something, bring it in the quantity I said. Really, this doesn’t have to be difficult.
12. Dominos and cards are better than anything that requires a battery or an on/off switch. That was true when you were kids and it’s true now that you have kids.
13. Showing up for Thanksgiving guarantees presents at Christmas. Not showing up guarantees a card that may or may not be signed.
14. In memory of your Grandfather, the back fridge will be filled with beer. Drink until it is gone. I prefer wine anyway. But one from each family needs to be the designated driver.
I really mean all.
Love You,
Grandma

“Many a true word has been spoken in jest”–from an old adage

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Help Parents Age Well: “The Worst Advice for Family Caregivers–Parent Your Aging Parent” Forbes blog 9/4/l3

The belief that we become parents to our parents has always seemed so disrespectful. We are always our parents’ children. They are always our parents. Even if not a biological relationship (eg. adoption), there’s the emotional component of being a parent or a being child, that endures.

Howard Gleckman, currently a resident fellow at the Urban Institute, and a Forbes blog contributor posted the following on the Forbes blog:

The Worst Advice For Family Caregivers: Parent Your Aging Parents

In the always-complex, often-painful world of family caregiving, there is no worse advice than this: When your parents need help, you must reverse roles and become their parents.

Here is the reality: If you are the adult child of an aging parent, you will always be their child and they will always be your parent. They may need your help with the most intimate personal care. But you will never become their parent.

I saw this all the time when I was researching my book Caring for Our Parents. I had the opportunity to spend as long as two years with people who needed assistance and their family caregivers. I saw heartwarming successes and sad failures. Often the difference was the ability of adult children to understand their role.

I was thinking about this after seeing Courtland Milloy’s column in this morning’s Washington Post describing his experience as a long-distance caregiver visiting his parents in Louisiana.

He wrote, “Some elder-care experts say that when aging parents stop acting in their best interest, the grown children must “reverse roles” and simply make them do the right thing.”

As he learned, this advice is so wrong on so many levels.

To start, what is the “right thing?” Who are you to decide what is right? As a matter of law and, I believe, ethics and morality, each of us gets to decide the “right thing” for our own life, as long as we are cognitively able and our choice does not harm others.

A wise man once said it like this: “When I was 22, I did some things my parents thought were remarkably stupid. But I was an adult and they were my choices. Now, my parents may be doing some things that I think are remarkably stupid. But they have the same right to make mistakes as I did.”

Put yourself in the position of an aging parent. As you become physically frail and cognitively limited, you lose control of your life. All those day-to-day decisions that healthy people take for granted—when to go to the movies, when to eat, when to walk across the room and even when to go to the bathroom—are increasingly shared with others. It can be embarrassing and demeaning.

And it is why a big part of frail old age is about maintaining independence and respect.

Now comes your child. He may be 50 years old, but he is still your child. And he is saying, “Mom, you’ve got to go to the doctor. You’ve got to stop driving.  You’ve got to move to assisted living.” He may have just parachuted into town for a few days. He seems rushed and impatient. And you, who on some level still view your son as the 18-year-old who left home to go to college, are resentful, embarrassed, and maybe even angry.

Needless to say, this is not a great environment in which to make decisions.

What’s the alternative? As much as possible, share decision-making. As the adult child, never start any sentence with the words: “Mom, you’ve got to.…” Instead, try, “What do you think we should do….” Help them choose.  But work together as much as you can.

Of course, if a parent or other relative is emotionally or cognitively incapable of making decisions, you may have to step in. But that is much less common than many suppose.

To his credit, Milloy finally got it, despite starting out with that awful “reverse roles” advice.

Like the proverbial bad penny, this parenting your parents business keeps coming back. Years ago, when I was writing for Business Week, an editor suggested a consumer caregiving column. It would be called, you guessed it…Parenting Your Parents. I told her I’d love to write the column but the name had to go. That was the last I heard about the idea.

And let’s hope this is the last any of us hear about the worst advice a family caregiver can get.
*                        *                        *

Help! Aging Parents’ philosophy has remained constant on role reversal. Unless aging parents’ actions threaten life and limb (our parents’ or anyone else’s), and assuming parents still have a good mind, we remind ourselves we are their children and act with due respect.

There’s a delicate balance here, especially when certain life-changing issues, like driving, are involved. Granted people (old and young) can be stubborn and irrational. Yet there are ways to accomplish our goals and remain respectful, given that our parents still think clearly.

When frustrated, sharing our concerns and getting help from geriatric social workers or our parents’ doctors makes sense. They’ve no doubt heard the frustrations many times before and should be well-equipped to help us deal respectfully and effectively with aging parents.

Related: ARPS’s http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/we_need_to_talk/ Driving Discussion Seminar

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