I am, as they used to say, “a woman of a certain age.” Not surprisingly, so are many of my friends. (Some are even men of a certain age.) And lately I’ve noticed a trend when we get together. Whereas there was a time when many of us would talk about our kids, these days the topic is all about our parents. And since even more of my friends still have a parent or two than ever had kids, this is a topic that is far more inclusive—nearly everyone has a story to tell.
I mention this because it’s National Work and Family Month. When employers and policy makers talk about work and family, it’s common to insist that “family” refers to all kinds of family, and dependent care to all kinds of dependents. But you know as well as I do that these terms most often refer to children. I love my children and they certainly take up a lot of my time and attention, even now when they are nearly grown. But can we pause a moment to think about elder caregiving? Because that’s a whole ‘nother book of Green Stamps.
In my case, my father died two years ago and my mother, now 92, continues to live on her own in their apartment. I say “on her own” rather than “independently” because even though she technically really does take care of herself, getting by with nothing but a housekeeper of longstanding who drops by to do a bit of cleaning every few weeks, in reality she depends heavily on her children—most especially my older sister, who made the perhaps regrettable decision to live most of her life in our hometown of Pittsburgh. My brother and I, having each moved long ago to opposite coasts, have the minor duties of check-in calls, occasional long-distance visits, and this or that random chore that can be dealt with virtually. My sister, however, a retiree herself, is on call for an endless array of transportation, grocery-shopping, bill-paying, appointment-making and more. It’s a lot of work, and, to be quite honest, my mother is not exactly an easy person to deal with.
Meanwhile, nearly everyone I know is facing an exhausting caregiving situation of his/her own. Several have parents with varying degrees of dementia. At least one has a mother who is dying, and has asked her son for help in hastening the process. There is always drama. Someone’s mother showed symptoms of a stroke but had to be coaxed to get to the hospital. Someone’s father had a fall and wasn’t found for hours. There is emotional drama, too. Friends I have known for years suddenly reveal histories I knew nothing about, as long-buried stories of family warmth and strife rise to the surface. Some friends have a parent who is loving and companionable. Others have one who is angry and defensive. Some have parents who keep driving or cooking or practicing law long after they are putting others in danger.
When you become a parent, you have at least a hazy idea of what the future holds. You don’t know, of course, who your children will turn out to be, or what unexpected places their personalities, needs and interests may take you. You don’t know when the unexpected might happen, transforming all your plans and dreams in an instant. But overall, you enter parenthood with a general idea of where things will end up and mostly that’s just where they do end up—eventually you find yourself with less laundry and more time.
But as an adult child, with aging parents, the future is a blank. Planning is difficult, because there is no knowing what you are planning for. One nearly always has time to prepare for becoming a parent, but the entrance into elder care either happens so gradually you don’t even notice or—more often, I suspect—happens in a moment. Once there, there is no knowing how long you might have with your parent, or how your responsibilities might change and expand. Worst of all, whatever happens and unlike with children, elder care nearly always ends badly. It is, after all, about the end of life.
Add to this the fact that though you may want and feel you need to “take care of” your parent, your parent may feel quite differently on the subject. And why not? It was frustrating to us when my father refused to stop driving, even when neither his eyesight nor his reflexes were up to the challenge–but I can well imagine how I’ll feel the day my kids try to take my keys from me. For my mother, accepting the help she clearly needs seems like an admission of her age and, as a result, of her mortality. And so, unlike with children, caregivers of the elderly have to weigh their responsibility with their parent’s right to autonomy, and often have to face down an ongoing battle of the wills.
The truth is, being an adult child with a parent to care for is nothing like being the parent of a child—as we tail-end Baby Boomers are finding out. Paying lip service to the different meanings of “family” will do little to address this fact. It’s National Work and Family Month. Let’s keep in mind how expansive that concept really needs to be.
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