This summer my father and I both celebrated birthdays, which got me thinking about how much time I have left with this man. He’s pushing 70, which isn’t actually that old these days, but his health and vitality has taken a real turn in the last year and a half. A hale and hearty man who used to hike in the Rocky Mountains nearly every weekend, was interested in anything and everything to do with science and technology – who taught me how to read and write and think – has been reduced to a pale, stooped shadow of himself. I love him, and I know he loves me (though you couldn’t pay him to say it out loud), but I don’t really like him very much a lot of the time.
There, I said it. I’m terrified of losing my dad, but I just don’t like him much anymore. He’s always been a challenging person to deal with, even when I was a little girl, but back then it was me and him against the world. He saved me from a fairly ugly situation with my mother after their divorce when I was very young, so I felt an exaggerated sense of loyalty towards him. But even then, he could be controlling and occasionally harsh.
Mean, spiteful behavior is one thing from someone who can take care of themselves. It’s another thing entirely coming from someone who is beginning to lose control of mental and/or physical faculties. When people who have a deep need for control begin to lose it, they often seek outside themselves to regain it.
So what does this mean for the adult children of aging parents who behave in these ways? We have to learn how to look past the imperfections and poor behaviors of our parents, in order to properly see to the care of people who took care of us when we were helpless and small.
For physical issues, such as a refusal to bathe or change clothes or allow outside assistance, it’s best to approach the parent as one would approach an exceptionally bright child. That is, give parents ways to make their own choices, but choices that are healthy and appropriate for them – and that you can live with!
When dealing with emotional issues, it’s always a good idea to make sure that both you and your parent(s) have as wide a social safety net as possible to draw on. Parents need more than their children to interact with on a daily basis, and children who are regular caregivers need to be able to walk away from time to time and take care of themselves – both for their own sake as well as their parents’.
A final note about emotional issues with aging parents concerns social and cultural prejudices. I’m dealing with this with my own dad; he’s always been pretty conservative but in the past 4 to 5 years he’s moved somewhat to the right of Karl Rove. This makes small talk about something as harmless as the evening news suddenly a minefield. I’ve had to learn when to stand my ground and when to bite my tongue, but the thing that’s most improved that part of my relationship with him is letting go of my need to be right – and moving out of his house! Something else to consider is that the aging brain loses a certain amount of frontal lobe function, particularly the part that controls our social inhibitions. What that means in practice is that Grandpa or Great-Aunt Betty might not want to say bigoted or inappropriate things, but their brains aren’t as able to override hurtful stereotypes as they would have been when they were younger.
Learn how to be gentle with both yourself and your aging parents – your conscience and your sanity will thank you for it.
* Further reading: