28 November 2011

Taking care of elderly parents

It's a reflection of current first-world demographics that quite a few essays are being written about the experiences of adults taking care of parents who are in declining physical or mental health.  Here are several excerpts from a column by Lillian Rubin in this week's Salon:
Listen in on a group of middle-aged children of the elderly, and you’ll hear that even the most casual mention of aging parents is likely to open up a Pandora’s box of anxieties. These are stories told with tears, with exasperation, and sometimes, when they can take a step back, with laughter. Not funny ha-ha mirth, but more like the hysterical laughter we all experience at those moments when we’re forced to come to grips with the absurdity of life and our own helplessness.

Even if their parents are still doing fine, middle-aged children need only look around at friends and neighbors to be reminded that these anxieties will become theirs one day... the demographic and cultural context in which this takes place is vastly different now than it was a century ago. Then, few women worked outside the home, so someone was available to care for an ailing parent. Today, a changed culture combined with economic need has put most women in the labor force alongside their men, which means that there’s no one at home to take care of Mom or Dad when they need it...

Those in their 60s and 70s, who looked forward to these years with their promise of freedom from the responsibilities that bound them before, are now asking: “When do I get to live my life for myself?” The younger ones, who at middle age are already stretched thin by their own financial problems — worried about how they’ll provide for their children’s education, whether they’ll ever have enough for their own retirement, how they’ll live the rest of their lives — are asking: “How can I do it all?”...

If there’s one word to describe the dominant feeling on both sides of the bridge that connects the generations at this stage of life, it’s “ambivalence.” “I love my parents, but…”  ...The parents’ stories are the mirror image of their children’s. “I love my children, I know they want to help, but…” The words say they appreciate their children’s concern while they feel it as an infringement on their autonomy...

“I feel like I’m being torn to pieces,” cries a 48-year-old woman as she struggles to balance her care and concern for her 70-something parents who need help and don’t have the financial resources to pay for it. Her parents’ response: “We just want her to stop nagging us and let us live our lives the way we want to.” I remind them that their daughter says they can’t afford to continue to live their lives as they have. “That’s our problem,” her mother replies, hotly. “We’ve managed until now. We’ll manage again.” It’s a no-win situation...

There is no right and wrong here, no black and white; there are only shades of gray in situations so murky that it’s nearly impossible for either parents or children to know just when it’s the right time to take a step, make a move...

“This was supposed to be my time,” says a 75-year-old retired widower whose 94-year-old mother has been living with him for 13 years. “It’s hard not to think, What about me? I’ve had some heart problems, and I think about that and know that, well, you know, I could die anytime and I’ll never have had the chance to live these years like I wanted to.”
The rest of the essay is at Salon.


  1. I thank my mom for adopting me when she turned 40 because before I was 30, she was gone and I was free to move on.
    Here in Texas I cannot count how many people are trying to raise a family and care for their parents (and some grandparents) at the same time and they will never move because they can't. Why oh why is it the norm to start popping kids out so young?
    Consider Japan's former tradition of the elderly taking themselves out of the equation to escape the shame of being a burden (and I sometimes muse that perhaps this was simply the equivelant of when your parents told you that Fluffy has 'run away' = perhaps often foul play was involved?)

  2. Taking care of my mother WAS difficult, but I wouldn't trade the time we shared for any paid caregiver. While I was helping her with her shower, cooking her meals, setting up her meds, waiting in doctors' offices, going to her house at all hours of the night because of one reason or another, it gave us the opportunity to share things we never would have been able to otherwise. Our conversations made us laugh, cry and even raise our voices to one another, but in the end we knew and loved each other even more than I thought possible.

    My parents sacrificed a lot for the seven of us kids. Being there for them through their cancer until their deaths (20 years apart), was the least I could do. I realize this will sound hokey, but it's the circle of life, and I hope I can make it even easier on my own kids when the time comes for their inevitable help.

  3. I appreciate your comment, dawt. Thanks.


  4. My wife and I are extremely fortunate that my 80 year-old mother chose to build a "mother-in-law" suite on the new house my sister and her husband built some years back. She's also in pretty good shape (never smoked or drank, ate properly, etc) and still has her own car, so she's no burden to them. My wife's multiple parents (lots of divorce/remarriage) are another kettle of fish, however. We're pretty financially marginal ourselves, and they all live in other parts of the country than us, so having to care for them is going to be a real stretch. We're just praying that her father will at least agree to move closer to us if/when that time comes. She's an only child, and worrying about this is putting years on her.

  5. I care for my mother. She had a stroke about six months after my youngest daughter moved out. She was extremely abusive in her better days, I often wonder the only reason she still isn't is she simply no longer capable physicaly. I can't beleive after all these years I am still trying to please her and failing. Yeah, it's a circle okay and I continue to go round and round in it. I grow weary of folks telling me I'll go to heaven, heh. I realise this statement sounds bitter, and I will never understand why doing the "right thing" feels so shitty.

  6. I live in terror that I will be a burden to my kids. I didn't realize what a favor my parents did my by dying suddenly! I hope I take after them.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...