Caring for Our Parents

… a Sandwich Generationer's perspective

“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.”

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“… 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!

We are called The Sandwich Generation

According to the Pew Research Center, just over 1 of every 8 Americans aged 40 to 60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent, in addition to between 7 to 10 million adults caring for their aging parents from a long distance. US Census Bureau statistics indicate that the number of older Americans aged 65 or older will double by the year 2030, to over 70 million.

Merriam-Webster officially added the term “Sandwich Generation” to its dictionary in July 2006.

Since I am still in my mid- (OK… late-) 30s, I am technically not a member of this group.  Yet I’ve earned my early admittance into this club since I have been acting in this capacity for over 10 years.  As I share the term The Sandwich Generation with others, I often get the same reaction – “Wow, I’ve never heard of it but it makes a lot of sense… it really does explain a lot and provides a helpful perspective!”.

I’m hoping my blog will help me reach others who are facing similar challenges and we can help each other improve our own well-being through support and encouragement.

This is my story…

My parents are in their late 60s and my mom has Alzheimer’s (Yes, I know she’s really too young for Alzheirmer’s… yes, it does suck… and yes, life is not fair).  She was diagnosed over 5 years ago and has remained relatively stable during this time.  Since her degeneration has not followed a normal path, she is caught in this in-between stage where she is neither independent nor sick enough to want to accept care.  For 5 years she has been stuck in this painful fear/denial phase which we pray will transition to a more productive phase but hasn’t yet.  My father is her full-time caretaker and ultimate decision maker for all things related to either one of them.  While he is in great physical health, his emotional well-being has steadily deteriorated over time and he still has not dealt with the loss of his life partner. You can imagine that the impact of the disease and their daily struggles have taken a toll on their loved ones – their kids, their siblings and their friends (the few that still remain).

While I don’t participate in their physical care, I am one of their primary caretakers for emotional needs.  This is a tough situation to be in since I am essential to their emotional wellbeing but not a decision-maker for anything related to their physical care.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know these two are tightly connected and I find myself often fighting losing battles.

On the other hand, I am blessed with two wonderful children and THE BEST husband (I am not exaggerating…REALLY).  My kids are healthy and growing into amazing little people but, like all kids their age, depend on mom and dad for both their physical and emotional well-being.  My husband is an equal partner in the raising of our kids and an ever-present source of support for my parents.

And then there is me… stuck in this constant struggle to find balance. I want to be at least as good a wife and mother as my mom was. I want to honor my parents by being there for them like they were for me. I want to be a good example to my children by taking care of myself, mind and body.

I find myself often doing nothing well but I never give up.  I always believe tomorrow will be better.  When I do things well, I try to pat myself in the back but my type A personality often shines through and reminds me of how I could have done it better.  Guilt… Guilt… Guilt!

Anyone have any suggestions on how to quiet the guilt while keeping the balance?

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