Pushing Aging Parents to do More Than They Can or Want to Do

“Caregivers Don’t Always See the Spirit Diminishing,” a piece in the NY Times Science Section resonated. Do we force/cajole/implore/push our aging parents–more than we should–to do what we’d like them to do to maintain their quality of life…ignoring the  possibility that they’re weary of coping and depleted of energy?

And if they comply, after they’re gone, do we revisit the uncomfortable feeling that we might have subjected them to unwanted pain or stretched-to-capacity endurance, because of a natural desire to hold onto them? Isn’t this the exact opposite of the peaceful exit from life we wish for those we love?

The NY Times piece highlights something I think we often ignore: allowing “failing” aging parents to live out the end of their life as they wish–not as we may fervently wish. I’ve referred to this winding down, getting tired of the having-to-“perform” process in previous posts.

On a personal level, it’s perhaps easier said than done. I think about the next-to-the-last time I visited Dad. I wanted Dad (who I decided needed to get out, breathe some fresh air, have some low-key stimulation) to go out to dinner, although he said “he didn’t feel like it.” We’d go to the Chart House with my favorite cousin, his favorite niece (in her early 80’s). He loved the clam chowder, he loved the view, and he loved being with his niece. Why was he reluctant?

In “giving in” he reminded me he wanted to sit at a certain table and I should tell them he was 94 1/2 to be more certain of sitting at this table which was a short walk from the door.  A strong, proud man, because of fatigue (no doubt caused by his age and failing kidneys), Dad had just begun using a walker when he went out. Didn’t like it much and didn’t want to use it if unnecessary.

No doubt like many far-away-living children, every time I visited I did all I could to empower Dad and to enrich his life. This was another attempt. Once seated Dad enjoyed the clam chowder, but his appetite had lessened and he ordered nothing more.  When the hostess brought him a complimentary slice of mud pie, “in honor of being 94 1/2” she said, he shared it with us and ate some.

In retrospect it was an effort he made to please.  He was winding down. The time had come when he preferred being in his home, sitting in his blue recliner in the den, watching/listening to TV while reading and dozing with a Louis Lamour book in his hand.

He died less than three weeks later. In retrospect, I don’t regret our going out to dinner. The fact that I think he went just to please me brings tears to my eyes–even now, many years later. That was Dad. Perhaps he was more considerate of me than I, unknowingly, was of him.

Aging Parents: Do We Become Parents to Our Parents? Part 1of 2

Do We Become Parents to Our Parents…and/or do we remain their children forever?

Contributing factors are varied.  Let’s look at the “children forever” part first. (Part 2 will address “When Parents Can No Longer Do For Themselves.)

Back to Childhood: To help parents age well we need to keep in mind: “People change–not much.”  I’ve often repeated this quote from the former head of human resources at a highly regarded Fortune 500 company. As grown ups, we can look at our parents with fresh eyes if we try (it’s perhaps easier when we live far away).

If parents are currently of sound mind and were accustomed to being in charge, confident, domineering–even if we don’t like the way they do things, we can’t expect them to change just because they’re old. If they’ve always accepted help, wanted people to do for them, and/or lacked confidence when younger, aging doesn’t change that. You get the idea.

Adulthood: What changes is our feelings about our relationship with parents–not necessarily connected to age, but rather their condition (ie. active and robust, beginning to seem feeble, fragile, and/or confused or becoming more dependent on us)–and/or our situation (ie. grown up, independent, conducting our own lives or unsettled).

 Parents remain our parents and we remain their children. Nothing can change that.

Can we fault aging parents for treating us like children? Or can we understand and then act accordingly?  It’s hard for parents to let go. Easy to continue old patterns of behavior. Think about coming home, if you went away to college. Didn’t parents still try to be parents–dismissing the fact that you had been completely on your own 24/7.  (Yes I know, that was before cell phones became an umbilical cord for some.)

This doesn’t excuse parents continually telling us what to do, or laying a guilt trip on us if we aren’t compliant; rather it bolsters the necessity to express our feelings, but also “pick our battles” if we want to avoid unimportant confrontations.

How can we maintain our adult status, when they think of us as their children?

It’s helpful to use “I statements” and “feeling statements” so as not to put parents on the defensive by sounding critical.  Examples: “I feel: really bad/sad when you: tell me I’m ……../–fault me/–try to control me” instead of something like “Why do you always have to …….. me?”  “Why can’t you try to understand me?”

Here’s the flip-side–

Interestingly, at certain stages in our lives some of us think we know pretty much about everything. We’re raising–or have raised–children successfully. We know we’re competent. We have jobs and do well and receive praise. This can translate into our thinking we know what’s best for our parents.

That’s dangerous when parents are still mentally capable. Too many suggestions can lead to resentment. Telling them what they should and shouldn’t do–assuming there’s no threat to life and limb–can be inflammatory if our opinion wasn’t asked.

Bossy, in-charge parents like my friend’s mother (who died at 104) want to remain in charge even when they can’t be in charge. (Her son walked a tightrope seeing that her needs were met without her thinking he was “meddling.”) Learning to let go, when it came to disputes that had no bearing on his mother’s welfare, was difficult for him…until he realized “why make life miserable for all of us as long as nothing is threatening her well-being?”

If the monkey wants a banana, give him a banana,” was a saying back in the day. Remembering it can help parents age well and help their children avoid unproductive confrontations.

Continued in Part 2: When Parents Can No Longer Do For Themselves