I’ve been asked to speak to a group about “parenting your parents.” I do a lot of public speaking and the people who ask mean well. This particular phrase is often used and is a kind of shorthand for what happens when we have to start making decisions for our elders. I have begun to ask that they use a different term.
Even when an elder is mentally diminished by Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, they do not become our child. There are so many differences between caring for a child and caring for an elder. First and foremost is that the child, under natural circumstances, will grow out of his or her needy phases, in a somewhat prescribed, predictable way.
However, even a child with disabilities – mental and/or physical – that keeps him or her from developing as one would expect, the child is still that – your child. You are the elder. You are in charge, because presumably, you have more experience.
Your parent will always remain your parent. There was a time when this person was in charge. There was a time when this person fed you, clothed you, corrected you, and hopefully, loved you.
There is a respect for age and experience, if this was a somewhat normal relationship. Even if it wasn’t, there is an awareness that this person has been on earth longer than you. That they once knew things you may not yet have learned.
I remember the first time I took my dad to the bathroom. I was the only one available, as my mother had gone out. We were home. There was no choice. I really didn’t have a problem with it, but I was so afraid he would be humiliated. If he was, he didn’t let on. We just got the business done. I took him to the bathroom countless more times before he died, and I never had the anxiety of the first time, but it never felt natural – the way changing a baby’s diaper is natural. There was always a feeling of infringing on his dignity.
With an elder who has diminished brain power, or who is failing physically (or both), we do not have the hope that this person will “grow up and out of this.” They are declining. They know it. We know it. There is a sadness in what we do, even if there is a joy in being able to help.
No, it’s not parenting. It’s loving care. It’s payback for all they did. It’s just what we do for those we love. But I won’t strip the dignity of an elder by pretending I’m parenting them. I’m just a helper, plain and simple.
For more information about Carol go to www.mindingourelders.com or www.mindingoureldersblogs.com.
Published On: December 07, 2006