Ageing parents figure large in my conversation these days. Looking after our old folk is part of the midlife landscape. We walk a fine line between interfering too much when loved ones can still manage and failing to notice when they can’t. I am the greatest advocate of independence. I love to read stories about octogenarians doing ballet and running marathons. Age should be no barrier to living a full life. But the reality is that not everyone stays physically and mentally fit. After my mum had a series of strokes our relationship changed and I’ve become more of a mother than a daughter.
My mum is in a care home where the care staff wake, dress, feed and toilet her. She has no use of her left side so she needs help to do most things. I live two hundred miles away but we talk on the phone at least six times a day, (the number often hits double figures). Mum doesn’t have a dementia diagnosis, unlike most of the other residents, but the stroke has robbed her of some of her personality. She struggles to grasp the world outside and has little empathy. She is anxious, depressed and incredibly lonely.
It is my unconditional love that she needs. I can talk her through the menu, suggest which programmes she might like, push her round the shops and organise her affairs but ultimately she just wants to hear my voice. In a care home there are daily frustrations, indignities, petty squabbles and genuine fears. I soothe her anxiety, soak up her misery and listen to her woes. It is a relentless, thankless and soul-destroying task.
I’ve read about the need to avoid role reversal when caring for ageing parents. It is not appropriate to adopt a parental position, to take control and treat the older person as an adult child. I totally agree. But this assumes that parenting is all about taking charge. My ‘mam and dad’ were not those parents. They were supportive, loving and kind. They gave me the freedom to follow my own path, make mistakes and speak my mind. When I describe a reversal in our roles I simply mean that mum now needs my support in the way that I used to need her.
Many of the things that defined my relationship as ‘daughter’ no longer apply. The sanctuary of the family home has gone. My mother’s capacity for creativity, her sewing, knitting, crafting, delicious cooking, green fingers and can-do attitude are now just memories. If I ask for one of her recipes it is barely remembered and then she stresses that, like the other residents, she might be losing her mind. The one thing that remains constant is our mother and daughter bond and it really doesn’t matter who plays which part.
Navigating changing relationships with ageing parents
Our instincts might be to protect our folks and believe that we know what is best for them. This is dangerous territory. The more you share your concerns about how they are coping the more likely your parent will hide things from you. They are justifiably nervous of what is in store and they want to hold onto their independence for as long as possible. The dent in their car, the fall, the forgetfulness – you can be assured it already worries them as much as it does you.
So how do we best support our parents without alienating them?
- Continue to ask your ageing parents for advice. Show them that you value their wisdom and respect their life experience.
- Get used to talking about finances. Perhaps make your own will and share the details with them. This may start a conversation about their own plans. When my mother-in-law died my husband spent two days looking for a funeral plan which never materialised. She had spoken of making one so we assumed it was in place. We learned through hard experience the importance of communication.
- Encourage your parents to apply for both financial and medical Power of Attorney whilst they’re still cognitive. It’s more difficult and stressful when they become ill or confused. It is fairly inexpensive and easy to apply on the UK goverment website with documents you can download and fill in together.
- Be present. Help out as much as you can in the home and garden. Get your parents used to being helped without it becoming a big deal. Check out community initiatives for trustworthy tradesmen so they have reliable numbers when they need them. Look into paying a neighbour to help with a bit of shopping and cleaning. This way your parent will feel they are ‘helping’ the neighbour financially and it will feel less like social care.
- Don’t get impatient or frustrated with your parents. Don’t chide them for being forgetful, for moving slowly or for failing to work the tv control. Encourage rather than bully. You might feel angry with them or that they are giving up – but poor hearing or eyesight, physical pain and anxiety may mean they no longer enjoy the things they used to. If they don’t seem interested in your news, your children’s achievements or your conversation it is because their world has shrunk a little. Try not to feel rejected.
- If your parent is diagnosed with dementia take the time to learn about the disease and become ‘a Dementia Friend’. It will help you both.
Reading these suggestions back they seem pretty inadequate in the face of the stress you will feel caring for ageing parents. I know that being there for my mum has impacted on my life in ways I could never have envisaged. You will feel guilt, frustration and helplessness. There is no way to sugar coat this pill – almost every part of it will be beyond your ability to change or improve. So try to let go of the idea of making it ‘right’ and just focus on being a reassuring hand to hold.
The last and most important piece of advice is to take care of yourself and the other relationships in your life. If you are lucky enough to have siblings who share the care of your parents be supportive and value them. Be open with your partner and make time to be together. In my case my partner takes the brunt of all my tolerance with mum. When I need to vent he gets the full force and I am very lucky he is the understanding man I need him to be – perhaps for years to come.
Thanks for reading, Avril x
PS. If the time comes when a parent really can no longer cope on their own you might find my post on finding a care home useful.
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