Caring for Our Parents

… a Sandwich Generationer's perspective

Archive for the tag “Sandwich Generation”

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!”

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.

“… 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…

Post Navigation