Putting Your Foot Down, With Compassion

  • As a columnist, I get many questions about people feeling alone. They wonder if they are the only people dealing with an issue. Nearly always, I can cite examples – often from my own life – to help them realize they are part of a fellowship. That, to me, is the inherent value of storytelling, of sharing our lives with people who are in similar situations. Sharing our stories doesn’t change the person’s circumstances, but it lightens their load. They remember they have companions as they journey onward. One woman touched me deeply with the following letter:

    Our parents are both in their early 70’s. Mom and Dad used to be very active. In fact, they were often so busy, I wouldn’t talk to them for months at a time due to their travel schedule. In the past couple years, they have had to give up traveling, because it’s too expensive. Their health care has gotten expensive. Also, they have been going through the deaths of friends. All of this has made them very unhappy.
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    Mom and Dad are looking to my siblings and our families to be their entertainment committee. We all have kids of various ages, and we happily include our parents in activities – when they will come. But now, they don’t want to travel to join the kids at their ball games, gymnastics meets and other events. They always have an excuse.

    And mom has been complaining so much –‘You kids never call, I never see anyone any more’ and so on. I try to talk to my parents at least every other week, and the sisters who live closer do so at least once a week. One sister and I rent a cabin for a week and invite our parents to join us.

    Another issue is that they still live in the huge house we grew up in, and it's way too much for them. Dad won’t move because he would have to give up his garden and will have to live with too many rules in a condo. He said, ‘You might as well just put me in a home.’

    The complaining has gotten so bad that we all dread having any contact with them, yet we do it because it’s not worth the additional complaining we get if we don’t call. It’s such a change from them not having time to visit with us to now being their sole source of outside communication.

    We have all had a wonderful relationship with both of our parents but it has gradually gotten worse the past couple of years. It seems that no matter what we do, it’s not right. We don’t know how to talk to them about this. When we try, they get very defensive.

    We are concerned about their health; we are concerned about one of them having a heart attack mowing that huge lawn; but more than anything, they are both so unhappy. It’s like mom is angry that she is getting older and it’s all our fault. We just don’t know how to help our parents any-more.

    I could relate to this woman, as most caregivers can. This is the message I passed on to her. I hope it helps some of you, as well:

    Oh, yeah! The laying on of the guilt. Most of us have been through versions of this. You seem to have an extra dose, however. It's my opinion that complaining can become a form of entertainment. People often resent getting older and don't want to change (like move to more suitable housing). The world isn't changing to accomodate them - they are bored, but don't want to do the things you suggest. I'm sorry you and your family are going through this, but it's not all that unusual. Sometimes just knowing that, helps.

  • Your parents are still making their own decisions, and until they are in such a state that they can't, and one of you has POA for health and for making other decisions, they are going to do what they want. You can suggest things. You can talk until you are blue. But, if they simply won't follow any suggestions to try for a happier life, you'll have to agree to let them complain, and try to detach from it.
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    We can't change other people, but we can change our attitudes about how we accept what they dish out. Have compassion - they are aging and afraid. They are unhappy and not feeling well.

    Also, having your friends die is hard. I remember my grandparents and parents going through that. So, we need to remember that life is hard for them.

    But that doesn't mean they can make everyone else's life miserable. I would suggest that you keep up the phone calls, visit as often as you can, invite them to functions - but if they won't come, it's not your fault. Listen to their complaints, tell them you are sorry. Suggest alternatives. But don't accept guilt. If they become abusive, say "I won't listen to any more of this. I'll talk to you when you are more ready for a conversation." And hang up. When they learn that you won't be abused, they will be easier to deal with.

    Easier said that done - I know that only too well. I remember the nurses, at the nursing home where my parents lived, telling me (when my mother had been nasty to me) "Don't come tomorrow - just skip a day." At first, I just couldn't do that. Oh, poor Mom! She would feel bad.

    But, when it happened again, I did skip a day. Voila! When I visited a day later, she was sweet as pie. The nurses were right. I just needed to stand up for myself. Mom was fine, and I was treated better.

    Again, I stress compassion for their circumstances. But you need to take care of yourself and your families. If your parents were in a better place mentally, that is what they'd want for you. Write back, anytime.

    To my blog readers – feel free to e-mail me at carol@mindingourelders.com, or go to the message board to add your comments.
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Published On: June 26, 2006