To Help or Not to Help: That is the Question.
Quick Answer: It Depends How
Sr. Advisor R’s close friend, N, has always loved to cook. I don’t know about you, but I love to cook when I feel like it. When I have time. And when company is involved, add to that: when I have the energy to purchase the special, fresh ingredients; prepare each course; serve; eat and–ultimately– clean up…and make it all look effortless.
My husband and I were flattered when N invited R and us to a dinner for five. The fifth guest was N’s child, a daughter in her fifties, who runs a demanding, time-consuming business and has a talent for gardening among other things. If we needed proof that elderly parents can organize and cook to perfection for company, we had it!
N, at 86, is an awesome (I don’t use that word lightly) Swedish cook. The meal she prepared was equal to that of a fine NYC restaurant–even more impressive when you consider her age and the meal: green salad with just-picked grape tomatoes, fresh salmon with dill, the best small potatoes imaginable, creamy spinach, home-baked limpa bread and N’s special Tosca cake for dessert.
What was equally impressive was the relationship between N and her daughter. The relationship between them is respectful, mutually supportive and obviously loving. For example, many daughters’ instinct would be to come in and take over when an elderly mother undertakes a “company dinner,” knowing the energy that goes into preparing such a dinner at any age…but at 86?
This very able daughter did it right. She quietly helped as needed (bringing the tomato and dill from her garden, washed and ready to use), unobtrusively carrying in plates of food from kitchen to table, refilling glasses and clearing dishes before helping with the Tosca cake. Yet it was clearly her mother’s dinner party.
I began to think about adult children who–unasked–take over major responsibility at family dinners (among other things), once older mothers reach a certain age. They decide (rightly or wrongly) it’s too much work for an aging parent–period.
Some older parents give in. Others are resentful; some question the motive. “They say it makes it easier for us, but I think it makes it easier for them,” reflects one elderly mother. And if they live far away, ” it saves them the trouble of bringing the kids (our grandchildren) to us for a holiday,” says a grandmother, who’s not yet ready to give up the tradition of Christmas dinner.
If we think back to raising children, we realize the importance of letting a child struggle a bit with age-appropriate challenges–as opposed to jumping in to help because we think we can do it better or easier. It builds confidence and reinforces self- esteem. The same reasoning holds true for aging parents, doesn’t it? Don’t we want our aging parents to continue to feel competent when indeed they are?
Should we think twice before we intervene and/or offer unasked for help or advice? When R was widowed in her early 50’s well-meaning advice seemed to come from everywhere. While realizing people were trying to be helpful, R has always been independent. She said to us, “There’s a lesson here: “Don’t assume.”
Regardless, I’m going to assume we “get it.”