Caring for Our Parents

… a Sandwich Generationer's perspective

Do Unto Others

In my last entry I re-blogged a great post from a wonderful blogger.  Kathy does a great job of talking about letting parents make decisions for as long as they can if safety is not a concern.

Of course, you know me well enough by now to realize that, while her ideas are very reasonable, logical and respectful, my own convoluted mind is incapable of just accepting them at face value.  I have to complicate things.

I had to ask myself whether safety is really ‘the line’ before I feel like I need to step in.  Should I let them make all the decisions until their safety is at risk?  What am I comfortable with? For example, am I okay if my mom decides to write a check to the Church for all her money? Technically she would still be safe but she would create a significantly negative situation for herself and others (she’d have to move in with one of us!).  No… definitely not okay with that one…

Yet, when they were both healthy, I often told them both to do whatever they wanted.  They could have decided to do a world tour to all the places they’ve never been to and always hoped to go.  They could have ended up spending all their money doing that.  Would I have been okay with that? I want to say I would have been but I honestly don’t know…

I realize these are extreme examples but you get the point… slippery slope… where is the line?  Does the line change when it’s approached from a positive angle versus a negative one? Is it easier to deal with the negative impact on me if they were having fun versus being sick?  Probably but it still doesn’t seem right to me…

I remembered talking to my counselor a while back about this very topic (see “Let Them Be”).  She challenged me to really think through the implications of what I shared in my blog (or Kathy shared in hers) and where a “healthy line” would be for me.  She pushed me on being assertive based on endless need to always please them, even at my own detriment.  Specially because not only am I not good about prioritizing my needs but neither have my parents.  They have always been… how would I say it?… free spirits?… rule breakers?… done as they pleased?…well, they’ve really always done what they thought was best, with great intentions mind you, but not always slowing down enough to think through the implications of their actions nor listen to the perspective of those impacted by them.  (No, it’s not an auditory problem as much as a processing, denial problem. Although when they’re watching TV you could swear they both needed hearing aids.) But I digress… back to the counselor.  She encouraged me to draw the line at a place that’s a bit ‘safer’ for my own well-being.  Afterall, I started to seek her counsel (read… I was at the end of my rope!) when I continuously found myself picking up their pieces for them.  Yes, I know… I took it upon myself to be the one who always picked up the pieces and I’m trying to work on that too.  (see “…but I have to make sure they are happy!”).  But this is exactly why placing this provervial ‘line’ in the right place is not as simple as it first seems (is anything ever really that simple?).

Personally, I’ve arrived at what works for me.  Since my parents (as a unit) are still competent and capable and they are not willing to have anyone else make decisions for them, I’m on-board with letting them be decision-makers as long as their safety is not at risk.  Once I feel we’ve reached that point, I will step in and take over.  Nevertheless, I too have a decision to make.  As long as they are the decision-makers, I will not be their ‘solution’.  Whenever I get the dreaded call or email saying it’s time for cleanup, I will reinforce how much I love them and wish them all the best in their cleanup process.

A year ago, I would have said that I would always be there for them, in whatever way they wanted or needed.  Today, I admit I’m a bit more discerning (cautious?) and I’m getting better at saying ‘No’.

The trick is to respect their dignity as they age, while not losing mine as I age.

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Here’s a great blog regarding decision making. Very true words of wisdom. Thanks Kathy!

On The Journey With Coach Kathy

I often write about the things that we can do to help our parents manage the changes in their care needs.  There are always many things that can be recommended to ease some of the challenges that a senior might face and we should surely be on the lookout for any signs that somebody may be failing on their own.

But one thing that I feel equally strongly about and need to express is the right of all seniors to self-determination.

Though I may have lots of ideas about how I think things should be done and how best to do them, as long as my parent is able to still make decisions, I must allow them to do so.  I have said before about safety being one of the measures for how forcefully to intervene.  But baring dire safety issues, Mom and Dad still get to choose.

They still…

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The Art of Calling

My brothers and I often discuss how phone conversations with my parents are becoming more and more superficial, to the point that they could almost be scripted.  After a nice “hello”, one must quickly transition to the weather.  This topic could be covered in a couple seconds or go on for a few minutes, depending on the mood from both parties. The phone is then passed from my father (who always answers the phone) to my mother (who has people to do that for her) where the conversation starts all over again. There can be no acknowledgement of the conversation with my father. This would raise significant tension and be interpreted as an overt statement of preference towards him. The words, tone and emotionality when speaking to my mother must be the same as just discussed with my father or there will be consequences.  After the weather discussion, the conversation evolves with the ‘how are things going with you?’ question.  At which point, I am unable to share any significant or meaningful information with them about my life because, if I do, one of three responses will occur, each of which would be regreatable:

1. The ‘we are not really listening to you’ response:  (Most frequent response)

Me: “Well, we broke ground on the house and they are about to lay the foundation!”

Them: “How are the kids?”

2. The ‘I’m bored so I will find a problem to solve’:  (Most annoying response)

Me: “Well, we broke ground on the house and they are about to lay the foundation!”

Them: “Do you guys need money?”

Me: “No, we don’t need money, we are fine.”

Them: “You can’t be fine, you’re building a house, you must need money”

3. The ‘I’m going to contradict you no matter what’ response:  (Most ennerving yet humorous response)

Me: “I have good news, I won the lottery!”

Them: “Well that’s not good news – now is when all the problems begin… just wait and see.  I’ve seen this a thousand times.”

or

Me: “I have bad news, I have a rare tropical disease and I have 4 hours to live.”

Them: “Oh, don’t be so dramatic… I have no doubt all you have to do is put some ointment on the rash and it’ll get better.  Listen to me, I know these things. Worst case, the doctors do surgery and you’ll be home in 3 days tops.  I should talk to your doctor, I’ll tell them how Joey had the same problem and his doctor was able to fix it right up.”

Therefore, when the question arises, my response is consistently: “Not much going on here, same old boring life… kids are growing up, husband is working hard and dog is as cute as ever. You?” This is how I stay sane. They then respond with a similar statement.

Historically, at this point the conversation found itself at a critical juncture.  If both parties were satisfied, there would be a pleasant “goodbye” and “talk to you soon” promise.  But sometimes I would make the mistake of probing further with “have you seen so and so? Any news from such and such?”. Then I would get to hear all about how awful so and so is or how such and such hasn’t called nor wants to spend any time with them. This would set off a spiral that always ends with my mother getting grumpy and bringing up the latest thing she swears my father didn’t tell her, such as “Of course, if I had known that so and so had the baby I could have gotten her a gift but no one tells me anything around here. Your father keeps everything from me”.

Needless to say, probing is no longer an option unless I register significant positive energy and high spirits from my mother.  Even then, I enter this area with significant caution and hesitation.

So, when my brother tells me that conversations with my parents are superficial and boring, I think, “I wouldn’t have it any other way!”

Well this just answers everything. It’s that I’m a fenomenal leader!!!

Live & Learn

guilt v shame


Winston Churchill?  Well, not exactly.  Stanford Graduate School of Business research suggests that people prone to guilt tend to feel a strong sense of responsibility to others…and were considered the strongest leaderswhile shame-prone people tend to be less engaged.  On the guilt-o-meter, I’m a screaming 10 out of 10.  So, if you’re with me on topping the Guilt Charts – – cut yourself some slack.  You are in fine leadership company. 🙂

The full article can be found at WSJ.com: Plagued by Guilt? You May Be Management Material.

Here’s a few excerpts:

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Chill in the air

My mom has decided that she’s mad at me.  Therefore, when I talk to her on the phone I feel like I’m in one of those commercials for spearmint candies/gum where things freeze when someone blows their breath.  I can feel the temperature dropping precipitously as she tells me that ‘Everything is great… very relaxed… no issues… no issues at all here… doing great!’ in a crisp and calculated voice.  “What have I done now?!  I’m 5,000 miles away, not sure how I could have made her mad.”  These thoughts go through my mind everytime I talk to her.  Unfortunately, she hasn’t been getting over it and seems to be the norm when I talk to her on the phone lately.  I decide to see if getting the kids on the phone quicker makes her soften up.  Yep, while she talks to them, her demeaner changes completely and she becomes the sweet grandma she always is.  As soon as I get on the phone though… a Evil Frosty reemerges.

“Well, at least she is with it enough to be mad at you”, says my brother who is on his way to visit them.  “Don’t worry so much and don’t take it personally. She’s always been really tough with you anyway.”  ‘Has she?’ I wonder.  I guess I never thought about it but when I ask him, he seems to be convinced that the typical mother-daughter tension that existed between us is clearly me getting the short end of the stick.  Hmmm.

In the meantime, I hear from my father that I don’t call enough and that if it’s not too much of an inconvenience, to call and that he would be happy even if it was just once in a while.  ‘Once in a while! I call you every few days! What more do you want?!’  Talking on the phone does not keep him from sending me upteen emails with endless articles and requests to check out this or that or to see his progress on this website or get my thoughts on this business idea or… (you get the point).  Enough!

It is true that because I am the only daughter, my parents expect more out of me than they do of my brothers.  They believe my brothers have their in-laws to care for and I have them.  I guess I always bought into that and never had a need to question it.  Fortunately my in-laws are wonderfully healthy and, while there is no doubt that they have needs, the two will never compare.  Their motto is ‘live and let live’ – meaning, if you want to see us, you know where we live – We won’t bother you and you don’t bother us.  Their lack of dependence and my husband’s saintly status (really… got a letter from St. Peter a few years ago granting him a fast pass straight to heaven when he’s ready) has provided me with the opportunity to not have to question this assumption until recently.

Yet, when I heard my brother say it on the phone, so matter of fact, such an obvious truth… it really pissed me off.  Why should they be harder on me that on my brothers?  Why do they expect more dedication and attention from me than them?  How dare they?!  I was offended, angry and done.  ‘That’s it! No more!’ I yelled in my head.

Then my conscience helped me realize that while they probably did set the expectation, I did take on the charge and continued to feed the beast over the years.  Not really fair get mad about it now, is it?

So, continues the journey towards setting healthy and appropriate limits with them.  So continues the journey towards breaking the co-dependence and accept that it’s OK for my brothers to share in the responsibilities, that I don’t have to always be the one who comes to the rescue or sacrifices the most.  So, continues the journey towards not defining myself by the tone either of them uses on the phone.  One step at a time, one day at a time.

I am saddened by the fact that my mom is mad at me and I have no idea why but I can’t let that be a reflection of me as much as I need it to be a reflection of where she is and her disease.

I need to… yet I can’t

Mother’s Day

It’s such a wonderful day for us moms.  In our family, it always falls around my daughter’s and husband’s birthdays (they are a day apart in early May).  Actually, everyone in my family has a May birthday except for me so if it wasn’t for Mother’s Day, I’d feel a bit left out of all the celebration.

This year was no different and amongst all the celebration, the kids and hubby made time to let me know I am still a favorite in their lives.  They gave me cards and presents and helped me feel as loved as always.  I made sure I celebrated all the other moms in the family with hugs, emails and text messages.   We sent flowers to my mother in law (because she raised three wonderful boys and deserves them).  My kids made a card to send to my mom and we Skyped with her on Mother’s Day and wished her the best.  She dismissed it as she always does and told us not to make a big deal about it.

Planning for my blog entry last week was super easy.  I had to decide whether I would do a special post or tie it into my weekly entry. There was no question that I would be celebrating my mom on my blog for sure.  Yet Sunday came and went and I didn’t have time to write (too busy celebrating with my family).  No worries, I told myself, I would do it on my usual weekly entry.  Then the week came and went and I found myself too busy to write.  Weird since I didn’t have a particularly busy week.  It didn’t take me long to realize I was dragging my feet.

I dragged and dragged until today and here I am dragging again.

Why can’t I write about my mom? She was a wonderful mom and an incredible person.  It should be easy to write a couple paragraphs.  Yet I can’t.

When I was a kid, for years, I would always write my mom a letter for her birthday or special occasions telling her how wonderful she way and how lucky I was to have her as a mom.  Even as an adult, I’ve written her many sappy letters.  I even made her the topic of a college paper about who I admire most! Writing to celebrate her should be quite natural.  Yet I can’t.

I thought this entry would be it but clearly it has turned into something else. (I think you are witnessing an example of ‘blog procrastination’!)  When I put my fingers on the keyboard, I get sad and a wall comes up.  My eyes get teary and I have to remember to breathe.  So many mixed emotions… so much to say… so hard to say it…

I need to celebrate her.  Yet I can’t.

And then it hit me…

Not often do I turn to my favorite TV shows for a source of inspiration.  In fact, I specifically choose my shows to escape my crazy life so there is usually little for me to relate to.  Nevertheless, last week’s Gray’s Anatomy episode raised an incredibly thought provoquing situation which hit home with me.

For those who are not familiar with the show, the hospital’s Chief’s wife (well… he’s actually not Chief any more because he had some issues and this cool military guy with… I digress…) has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she is now residing in a home.  The Chief (I honestly can’t remember his name), visits her daily and is completely devoted to staying by her side through this disease even though she rarely remembers who he is.  During one of his daily visits she shares with him that ‘she is in love!’.  Unfortunately, it is with another man.  He even catches them fooling around at one point.  As you can imagine, he is not happy that the facility has allowed this to happen.  After much turmoil and some changes that make his wife really unhappy, he realizes that he is no longer part of her ‘new life’.  He chooses to let his wife go back to this new life and continue her romance with this other man.  He chooses to let her be happy with someone else and ‘get out of the way’.  (He then chooses to hook up with another doctor but that’s out of scope for this discussion…)  =)

I have sometimes thought that things might be easier for our family once my mom is so far gone that my dad will be forced to put her in a home. I thought it might make things easier, especially for my dad and he would be able to go back to living his life. In watching the episode I realized how lonely and displaced the Chief was after making his decision. I was surprised to see how hard it was for him to do it, to let go and put his wife’s happiness ahead of his own ‘duty and obligation’ to be a loving and faithful husband in ‘sickness’.  It hit me then that my dad is not putting his life on hold to take care of my mom.  He is very much living it and that there is nothing for him to ‘go back to’ because he’s never known life without her.  The time will come when he will have to make these tough choices.  I hope he chooses to make her happy as well but I know it will devastating for him to put his ‘duty’ and his ‘ego’ aside.  He’ll also have to balance the guilt of relief with the grief of the loss. I wonder if that time will come before she passes away.

And there it was… hitting me in the pit of my stomach like a ton of bricks.  I grieved a little bit more the gradual loss of my mom.

Grounding

Thank you for reading my blog and for sending me information on this topic. I started this blog because I know I’m not the only one out there going through this experience. Yet, I have learned that it really helps me organize my thoughts and maintain a positive state of mind, specially when I start to spiral down into navel gazing despair. Like an airplane spiraling to the ground, writing helps me kick in the rudder and lift the airplane back into level flight. Now I realize that regardless of how many people read this, I will continue to write for my own well-being. This takes the pressure away from thinking I have to please an audience or be funny to ensure that people will keep reading. Phew! (I have an amazing ability to turn even the most carefree and liberating tasks into stressful monsters, huh?)… self-awareness is the first step to recovery… or so they say!

I wanted to comment on a couple of articles that you sent my way. The first is a CNN article on the Sandwich Generation. Take a look at it, it’s a great read:

http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/09/living/baby-boomer-caregivers/index.html?hpt=hp_c3

Many of the articles I read on this topic deal with caregivers who are significantly older than myself and my brothers with parents who are much more advanced. It confirms that my parents are way too young to be having to deal what they are going through and reminds me that they have a long life ahead of them. These articles help me feel that there is a community out there but also give me a bit of a foreshadow on the journey ahead. Not surprising, I’m already thinking about these issues and trying to plan and contingency plan if plan A doesn’t work… plan B… plan C… plan Z…. Then I remember planning as a teenager/young adult when I was watching my mom care for my grandma who also suffered from dementia. The reality is that all the planning and reflection I did back then and my plans of how we would handle things were not applicable. Not because they were bad solutions but because we have been faced with different and unforeseeable issues. What I thought things would be like never came to be and what came to be was not in the realm of my potential scenarios. So why all the planning? Good question… but what now?! Just let everything go and flow with what comes like I do when I float on the waves at the beach? Sounds scary for a type A personality like myself!

Enter a great diagram that was sent to me by another great friend:

http://visualnews.columnfivemedia.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/things-you-should-focus-on.jpg

What a great reminder! I spend a lot of emotional energy in my life trying to push these two circles together. I will try to remember that it’s OK for them to not overlap and let go. I will stop spending my energy trying to merge them and focus it on the little I can control. I will welcome the uncontrollable with God’s grace. Hopefully, He’ll grant me the wisdom to handle it all well. At least, I can be sure that I will have the energy to handle it to the best of my abilities. That is all I can ask of myself and with that I should be content.

On the road again…

Life had gone back to the usual chaotic routine. It’s funny how quickly times flies and you realize you’ve done so much and haven’t had time for anything. All at the same time. I did make time to be appreciative and to enjoy the little moments life has had to offer me.

I feel so blessed every day to be able to spend so much time with my kids. As a previously working mom, I have a particular appreciation for being able to pick up the kids after school and the opportunity to sit down with them to do homework. I’ve always loved school so having a chance to see them excited to want to learn and being able to help them make it fun is so special to me. I love doing homework with them!

In the midst of this normalcy, I’ve had an unusually ‘quiet’ relationship with my parents this month. They have also settled into their own routine and all is… ‘uneventful’.

Not surprising, this steady state is unsustainable in my family (I often mention that my life is a sitcom) and, sure enough… I got the call. “Things are going great. We are feeling rested and recharged and your mom is doing wonderfully. Her memory seems to be good, her mood swings have diminished and the routine is doing wonders for her. We think it’s great that you and your brothers are coming to see us this summer but we are bored so we thought it would be great if we got on a plane again and repeat what we did less than 3 months ago and we went to see you again…No, I don’t think that another 3 month tour of seeing ‘The Kids’, spending two weeks in each place across time zones, then doing some sightseeing, then come back for another two weeks at each of your homes before we head back home to collapse from exhaustion and recover from all the issues that stem from traveling like we were in our 20s with no medical issues when you are in our 70s and caring Alzheimer’s patient, is a big deal at all. It will be fun, no?…”

OK, so those weren’t exactly the words that my dad used when we spoke but that’s certainly the words I heard in my head. What is he thinking?! Sometimes I think it’s like childbirth… your body has an amazing ability to block out the pain or you wouldn’t be caught dead having a second, let alone a third, child!

Does he not remember the emotional roller-coaster that gets set off when my mom doesn’t have a routine? Does he not remember her sleepless nights, her waking up not knowing where she is, disoriented, scared and most of all, angry? Does he not remember he can’t handle when she is abusive and dismissive to him when she’s in this state? Do I have to remind him of all the crises we had to manage through just a few months ago? Does he not remember how beaten up and defeated he felt? How broken hearted he was? I am just now healing the scars from all those battles and he wants to start again?!

I touch my index finger to my nose and yell “Not it!”. Then I realize I’m home alone and the dog is wondering why I’m talking to myself again. I realize the futility of trying to get out of it.  Of course I’ll be there to help them. Of course I’ll be excited to see them. Of course I know that while we want to believe it will be different this time and that things will be better, they won’t be.  We’ll find ourselves having the same conversations and doing the same things again when things fall apart.

I start plotting how to manage this and minimize the unintended consequences of his mad plan. “That sounds great dad! Glad you guys are feeling up to traveling again and that neither of you remember that you both swore never to do it again.  Glad that you forgot that you finally realized that what mom really needed was to be home, peacefully, relaxed and most importantly with a routine.” Again, not what I said but how it played in my head.

Why did I not hit him over the head with a 2×4? Well, most obviously because he’s thousands of miles away and I can’t reach him physically but also because I get it.  I understand that my mother’s needs are completely opposite to my dad’s deepest desires. She is weak and fragile and needs routine. He feels young and wants to travel and see the world. I feel for him and I want him to get a little taste of what he deserves but can’t have. Suddenly all the complexity hits me like a ton of bricks.  The scars that I thought were starting to heal unexpectedly open up again and gush out with a steady flow of raw emotion.

The swirl of feelings start pouring out like a damn had broken.

Anger – at my mom for getting sick and not wanting to do anything about it. At my dad for not being strong enough to make the tough choices. At myself for not having the emotional strength to cut them off and save my family the pain that is inevitable.

Selfishness – for wanting to protect my family from the pain and for wanting my parents to make different choices

Sadness – for mourning the loss of my mother and for understanding that my dad is putting his life on hold to care for her.

Shame – for not being able to handle this in a more ‘mature’ and appropriate way. If only…

Guilt – for feeling all the above.

And so it starts again…

The ‘Daughter’ hat…

I wear many hats in my life – mom, wife, daughter, friend, sister, marketer, mentor, volunteer… As I interview many of you, I learned how different and similar our hats are.  This is not surprising to me since we’re all different yet linked together by commonalities.  For most of us being a ‘mom’ and ‘wife’ are consistently the first two hats we mention.  However, the ‘daughter’ hat seems to be a bit of a mystery to me.  It rarely comes up with many of you until I mention it.  Even then, I hear a quiet over the phone… “uh… yeah… of course I’m a daughter…”  Yet there seems to be a great variance in what it means to each of us.

Some of you mention that it’s not a hat you think about because you don’t have to wear it very often.  Others mention that the label is not really relevant to you any more because you are no longer a child and your relationship with your parents has evolved to one more of peers.  Finally, there is the group that I fall into… those that list it right up there with mom and spouse.  We seems to be in the minority in my current sample. (I need more victims to interview!)  Interestingly enough, while cultural heritage is a factor, it does not seem to be the driver.  It seems to be more consistently related to the role we each play within our families at this point in our lives.

Of course, the label alone is meaningless, what is relevant is the significance behind it.  For me, being a ‘daughter’ has always been a hat I wear.  I am the only girl in the family and I come from a traditional Southern European heritage where the girls are the caretakers and the ‘glue’ that holds the family together.  For those of you who share this caretaker role within your own families, this seems to bring up the ‘daughter’/’son’ hat consistently.

If this is a sound hypothesis, then I am curious about whether this hat pops in and out of our lives like some of the others (ie. ‘mom’, ‘wife’).  Afterall, we are born with the hat… do we eventually take it off?  I’ve never thought about whether I will continue to wear it once my parents are gone.  Do people ever ‘pick it up and put it on’ after not having worn it for a long time?

Our definitions for ‘daughter’ are so varied.  I can’t seem to crystalize it into a common one.  The meanings vary.  Sometimes it relates to a childhood stage or a state of dependance.  Sometimes, it’s a simple label in the family tree with no further association.  Yet sometimes, it is a label deeply connected to fond memories and self-imposed expectations.

As a ‘wife’, I partner.  As a ‘mom’, I care.  As a ‘friend’, I empathize.  As a ‘sister’, I admire.  As a ‘marketer’, I do.  As a ‘mentor’, I encourage.  As a ‘volunteer’, I give.  As a ‘daughter’, I…

(all of the above plus pay it back?)

Hmmm…I’m going to have to think about this one.

[Please post a comment with your definition of ‘daughter’]

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