Caring for Our Parents

… a Sandwich Generationer's perspective

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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!”

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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.

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’]

“Tic, toc, tic, toc… what’s important depends on the urgency”

I just got off the phone with a dear friend and here is her story…

“Suddenly it hit me.  They are not who they use to be.

My parents have always been my rock.  The ones I relied on.  The ones who were always there for anything and everything.  I have always felt their support like a warm blanket around me.

From one day to the next I realized how selfish I had been.  My eyes were opened to them getting older and to how I continued to behave like a child.  While I was depending on them, I totally overlooked that they had started depending on me too and I hadn’t been there for them.  How sobering to think that I was no longer their little girl and needed to own up to it.  I needed to start behaving like such.

They say that Awareness is the first step.  You leave Denial on the path to Acceptance, right?  No one ever tells you about the guilt that comes with the Awareness.

The problem has been defined but I don’t have a solution.  The guilt is ever present but I don’t have a solution to make it go away.  There is so much more I should have done… there is so much more I need to be doing… there is so much more I need to be ready to do.  Will it ever be enough? Will I ever find peace?

I’m lost in a world of rocks and hard plates.  No matter what I do, there’s always an upside and a downside.  My father needs a hearing aid but he can’t afford it.  If I buy it for him, I hurt his ego, damage his dignity and rob his independence.  Yet, he’ll be able to hear again and his frustration will diminish.  What’s the right choice?  It depends right?

My mother is caring for my sister who just moved back home.  I see her getting tired and stressed from having to care for someone again – doing laundry, making meals, cleaning, etc. Do I put my foot down and tell her to stop because it’s going to make her sick?

When making decisions, I tend to prioritize what is important vs. what is urgent.  Prioritize what is most important and most urgent and go down from there.  I learned long ago that with parents, time is a critical factor.  Things that get deprioritized today because they are not urgent can become a priority quickly.  You simply don’t know whether they will be there tomorrow.  It’s the 20/20 hindsight that brings the ‘should haves’ to keep you up at night.

I wish I would have had a friend tell me this years ago.  I would have made different decisions.  I would have prioritized things differently.  I always thought I had plenty of time.

So back to my decisions… Is it important for my father to hear? Yes.  Is it more or less important than preserving his independence and dignity? It depends… In the short term, dignity and independence are more important.  Yet, the longer he goes without hearing, the more damage that is done, the more isolated he gets, the more likely he is to get depressed and increase  his anxiety.

Time…

I’ll buy him the hearing aid, even if it causes him pain.  I will prioritize his physical need over his emotional need.  The long-term physical gain outweighs the short-term emotional discomfort.  I do realize that, if he wins the lottery tomorrow (or something else changes the situation), all this will be for not and the emotional pain will not have been worth it.

Is it important for me to tell my mom my sister is taking advantage of her and that she needs to stop?  Yes.  Is it more or less important than preserving her dignity and letting her be a mom again? No…  This one is easier.  If she were to get sick tomorrow, I know her well enough to know that she would think it was well worth it.  Feeling useful brings meaning to her life.  I can’t rob her of that.

I can’t keep the ‘should haves’ from the past from keeping me up at night but I can certainly try to keep new ones from emerging.”

“… but I have to make sure they are happy!”

Isn’t it funny how we take on particular roles intended to contribute to other’s lives whether they are wanted or not?  I have always been a ‘pleaser’.  I am consistently described as ‘responsible and consciencious’.  (I’ll take ‘responsible’ but really, who wants to be described as ‘consciencious’… seriously?!)  My whole life I have always struggled with feeling like I have to please those around me, particularly those I love.  Of course, this was definitely true for my parents.  I remember trying to figure out what I wanted to study in college and being a little sad because I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer like dad nor did I have an ounce of artistic talent like mom.  After much soul searching I did find something I was passionate about but I felt sad that they did not seem as interested or proud about my career as I wanted them to be.  It’s not that they weren’t proud, of course they were.  Biochemistry was just not interesting to them… (Hey now …  it is too interesting!).

Looking back, I realize that I’ve always assigned myself the task of trying to keep my parents happy.  When I was a kid, I would write them letters for their birthdays telling them how wonderful and amazing they were.  I got such a kick out of watching them so proud and happy.  As I got older, I was the permanent side-kick in everything they did.  Their ever-present companion.  Actually, my Senior year in high school I was almost not allowed to graduate because I had traveled so much with them for my dad’s work that I wasn’t going to meet the minimum requirements for attendance.  I remember telling them and feeling so bad that I was inconveniencing them by having to stay put so I could finish school.  When they fought, I would listen and try to empathize.  I would listen more than any daughter should have to hear about her parent but always happy to do it to help them through the venting phase.  Hoping for a quick reconciliation so everything could go back to normal.  When they were sad, I always tried to cheer them up.  As the youngest, I was so worried when I moved away to college that I seriously wondered if they would be able to cope without me (whatever would they do?!).  Not surprisingly, they not only survived but embraced the new phase incredibly gracefully just like they had done with every other one in their lives.

I have always felt so good over the years as I’ve brought them joy, whether with big things or small.  However, I must admit I often found myself happily playing unproductive and enabling roles.  On and off over the last 20 years, I have been my dad’s personal assistant. “Good for you, helping your dad out”, you say… except there was a particular time when he was already retired and I was working full time and had two small children (…and one too many loose screws in my head)!  Yet, every single one of these unproductive roles I played was one I chose to take on.  They were never requested…definitely embraced and encouraged by them… but never, ever, requested.

Of course, I always felt incredibly guilty when I had to say no.  (‘Pleasers’ don’t like that word… it really scares us. We believe the world will actually stop spinning if we overuse it. That’s why we save it for the most dire of situations.)  Over the years, I have been known to say no (after much therapy and my husband’s patient and endless encouragement).  I’m still not great at it and I do find myself saying yes more often than I say no but I am getting better.  I realize I need to set limits not only for my sanity but because it’s important for them to know where they are.  I realize how unfair it is to be miserable and blame them when I’m the one responsible.  What’s really interesting is that I believe that limits make my children strong, independent, empowered individuals and helps them realize they are not the center of the universe.  Why don’t I think this applies to my parents?

I now know it’s OK to want my parents to be happy but it’s not OK to need my parents to be happy.  I’m not the ‘happiness’ elf.  Although… if only I could be…

Oh the guilt!

So I call my parents regularly and they tell me they are doing great.  They are back into their routine and living their lives.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder.  Why you ask?

Because they make comments like “We are good … just another boringday here.”  Are they really doing well and like their boring lives or is this a passive aggressive way of saying “We are bored out of our minds because we there is nothing to do … and it’s all your fault”? (Notice that I added that last part for emphasis and a bit of self pity).  My favorite is when they remind me to “Please call more often if it’s not too much trouble.” I call them basically every day!

The funny thing is that only my parents can make me feel guilty in this way.  If anyone else even tries to play these passive aggressive games with me, I tend to address it immediately by calling them out which usually nips it in the bud.  Yet, with them, I play right along and plunge right into their game.  The funny thing is that I know they don’t mean to do this and if they ever realized just how bad they make me feel, they would be crushed.

When the feeling of guilt sinks in, I remind myself that they are living the lives they chose and that it is not my job to make it better (or worse).  Then I ask myself if I am still engaging with them out of love or obligation – Am I calling every day because I want to or because I have to.  When I find myself in the ‘have to’ category, I reflect on it and try to get back to the ‘want to’.  Sometimes, I do this by waiting a day or to and having a chance to miss them before I call.  Other times, I do this by thinking about what I want to talk to them about and wonder what they are up to.

A friend of mine recommended a book I would like to read – Codependent No More by Melody Beattie.  I’ll let you know what I learn but if you beat me to it or have already read it, I’d love to get your perspective on it!

“Let them be”, she said…

In my quest for trying to get a more objective, more educated perspective regarding my parents’ well-being, I decided to talk to an expert.

Her words of wisdom… “Let your parents be!”

A bit harsh if you ask me… after all, I’m just trying to help them out.  Granted, I’m doing so by telling them everything they are doing ‘wrong’ and clarifying what they need to be doing to make their lives ‘better’.  Isn’t that what a daughter is for…to bring truth and perspective to the issues?  Who would tell them the ‘truth’ if not me?

After I got over the initial shock of realizing I may not be the perfect daughter, I decided to reflect upon the advice and try it on for size.

“Be supportive!”, she said.  I’m not sure I’ve told them recently that I love them unconditionally.  Nor have I told my dad how much I appreciate how hard he’s trying to take care of mom.  But he knows… right?!  Besides, I need to tell him all the ways he is messing things up so he can stop doing it.  I know he doesn’t mean them, he just doesn’t realize it so I need to tell him.  Yet, it never seems to work when I do so maybe if I try something different…  So I call them every day and celebrate their activities the same way I celebrate for others, asking questions and reinforcing positive actions while not giving any time to negative aspects.  I proceed to have had the most pleasant discussions with them I have had in months.  Maybe this ‘expert’ is on to something…

I realize that I’ve been tougher with my parents than with others I love.  Probably because I have such high expectations of what they can do versus what they are doing or maye because they are tough on me when it came to this type of thing.  Either way, I realize what they need, now more than ever, is unconditional love and support.  That I can do easily!

I still struggle with knowing their  house is a mess (even though I know it is still cleaner than most college dorm rooms), or that they eat out every day (even though I know more often than not it’s a relatively healthy and balanced meal).  I still worry that they fight and argue a lot (even though they’ve been doing that for over 40 years).  Ultimately though, I realize that I will worry about them no matter what and that my judgement will not improve the situation nor tell them something they don’t already know deep down inside.

I realize now that I need to be as sensitive and protective of their feelings as I am with everyone else I love and care about.  The world is full of people who will judge them and tell them ‘how it really is’.  Unfortunately, not many will remind them they are doing the best they can and that it’s good enough.

… I’m off to call my mom and dad!

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