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Parenting Our Parents

Years ago a friend commented that parenting our children is like a Peace Corp enlistment -”the toughest job you’ll ever love”.  Now sixteen years into parenting three girls I can say that this phrase sums it up pretty darn well.  Parenting my elderly parents?  Not so much.

As my siblings and I married we scattered to the winds, at times living literally half a world away from our parents who until last year still resided in the house we were raised in.  You know the house.  Two-story, rickety stairs to a cement basement, no bathroom or bedroom on first floor, stuffed chock full of forty-six years of life. Dad, an award winning municipal lawyer, couldn’t bring himself to retire and at seventy-nine was still practicing law, walker in hand.  And since their home lay in the town he had represented for over forty-eight years he had no plans to move himself or my mother anytime soon. If not for a serious fall that left him with a fused upper and lower back we probably would never have gotten them out of that house.

Fast forward to this fall.  Eight months after extracting them from the house (referred to by Mom at the end as the “albatross around my neck”) they were in their new home, a cooperative apartment one mile from the ‘ole homestead, which Mom had renovated at a nice penny.  Life was once again somewhat stable from their perspective, but not ours.  Mom, who has had significant balance issues for several years was now the manager of their lives, including driver, cook, cleaner and shopper and continued to do all this without so much as the use of a cane.  From our vantage point they were one fall away from a true calamity. 

So the discussions began…between ourselves, and with our parents.  Discussions about the dangers of not using a cane (so Mom wouldn’t fall and break a hip); the discussions about needing to retire (so Dad could step out with dignity rather than be forced out); discussions about how lovely my in-laws new assisted living apartment was (so they would know others had moved and were actually downright happy they had); and even hard discussions about the fact that none of their children were in a place to drop everything every two months and rush up there (as we had been doing for the past year).  In the end, Dad was pretty cooperative about anything that did not involve him retiring.  Mom, on the other hand, was clearly keeping serious medical information (including falls) from us, and was fiercely holding onto their independence (though she was more than willing to comment on Dad’s need to retire).

Through this all I recalled Mom’s own dealings with her elderly mother who at ninety-three had still been living alone and was a nasty bugger to boot.  It seemed the only way to accomplish anything with Nana had been to wait until a crisis arose (driving down the highway the wrong way; forgetting to pay bills, change her clothes, eat; falling and breaking her hip) and then move in for the kill so to speak. I desperately did not want that to be the situation with my folks.  Partly because the stress and worry of watching our parents continue to try to care for themselves was so overwhelming. Partly because none of us felt prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude from such a long distance. Visions of our mother falling and ending up in a nursing home and my father alone at home unable to fully care for himself (much less get around) played through our minds.  Selfishly perhaps, I knew there had to be a better way to do this aging parent thing and I wanted the better way for me (and for them).

Then true to form, and much to our despair, Mom fell and ended up in the hospital.  The icing on the crisis was the cancer diagnosis delivered two days later.  So began another series of tag-team trips to get her situated with oncologists, neurologists and orthopedics. In the last two months I think the woman has seen all the top doctors in the Northeast and had her body scanned, x-rayed, needled and poked more than anyone I know! And I have begun work on yet another pseudo-PhD, this time in Multiple Myeloma and acute elder care.   

Finally, the catastrophe we’d been dreading and trying to avoid but convinced would occur in some form, was here. A hastily called family meeting went over much better than we anticipated and this time they listened when we talked about the need to move.  If and when we can get Mom well enough we will have a spot for them here.

I wish that I had some great words of wisdom for those of you in the same position.  For once this maven doesn’t, though not for lack of trying. I began reading books on elder care and dealing with difficult parents two years ago.  And I have talked to umpteen numbers of friends who have been, are now, or think they will be, in the same or similar situation.  This informal canvas did not offer any steps we had not already tried, but it did indicate that we are the norm, not the exception, when it comes to dealing with elderly parents.  In the end I have come to accept that until they are almost entirely dependent on you (either through mental incapacity or physical needs) they will live their life the way they want.  And when they are done doing that, we must be there to step in, put aside our “I told you so” as best we can (still working on that) and move forward to this next phase of their lives and ours.

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