Caring for Our Parents

… a Sandwich Generationer's perspective

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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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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…

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