1. Oh, Go Ahead: Be a Burden
For a couple years now, I have been facilitating a group of women in a conversation we call Death, Dying and Dessert. All of us are over fifty; several are in our seventies and one of us has just breached eighty. As I have listened to us, regardless of the topic, I hear a consistent theme: “I don’t want to be a burden.”
But if we continue to age and move deep into our eighties and nineties, the odds are good that we will experience some sorts of decline, physical, mental or both. This is just normal. It happens to most of us. Finally, after hearing one more protestation about not wanting to be a burden, it hit me that, I WANT to be a burden because I wouldn’t mind living long enough to need a little help.
In listening to the stories of how we deal with our parents, it has become clear that when they resist so mightily any change in their familiar behavior or circumstances, even when it puts them at risk, and when they refuse to talk with us about deficits that are obvious to all and need to be considered without helping us understand how psychologically painful it is to experience a loss of control over one’s life they place on us the very sense of burden they claim to want to avoid.
I think my job is not to avoid being a burden as I age but to try to contain the burden, to be as graceful and intelligent a burden as I can. I hope I can recognize decline and collaborate with my children in trying to compensate for losses in ways that help me and help them. When we refuse to recognize and address the difficulties aging can bring because we can’t stand the idea of losing any independence or asking for help, we are the burden we want to avoid.
I don’t expect to be cheerful about any loss of independence, and I think it unreasonable to expect such cheer. What I hope is that if I am honest about facing my circumstance rather than pretending nothing is happening, and I try to alleviate their fears, I can help my family appreciate that giving me the right to live in old age as I wish is less a burden for them than a gift to me.
2. On Dealing With Aging Parents
When it hits us that the roles have reversed and we are caretakers for our parents, it’s painful. When our parents resist our good suggestions, when they refuse helpful strategies and intelligent interventions and seem to be determined not to let us help them, it makes us crazy. We have had dozens of conversations with adult children frustrated by the difficulties of helping their parents.
Here is what we have come to understand from these many conversations and our own experiences with parents. By nature, many of us are fix-it people. Give us a problem and we immediately move into action, wanting to solve the problem, make things better, move forward. Often that works well in caring for older parents. Determination, persistence and resourcefulness can have big payoffs.
But sometimes, things cannot be fixed. They may be unfixable or our parent may mightily resist assistance because resistance seems to be the only kind of control left to him or her. In these situations, we may have to move from fixing to holding. Our job becomes to hold the problem and do whatever we can to ease its stresses. Holding for a long time becomes heavy. But the antidote to this is not anger. It is understanding, patience and, sometimes, resignation. It happens in many instances that when we insist on trying to fix that which seems immutable, we make both our parent and ourselves nuts. If we can remember the serenity prayer and accept what we cannot change, we have energy left over simply to be a loving presence.
3. I Could Throttle My Mother
Well, our friend doesn’t really want to throttle her mother, but she is frustrated and often angered by her mother’s refusal to find anything positive to say, by her unwillingness to take any actions that could improve her life. Her mother whines that doesn’t take her out enough, but then when they do go out, the time is so unpleasant, it is hard to schedule another outing.
A. is full of guilt about this relationship and about her inclination to avoid her mother. Until recently, thinking this was her work as a good daughter, she refused to give up on trying to change her mother’s attitude and her behavior. It wasn’t working. A. has now come to a better place.
“It finally hit me that my mother is not going to change. I probably have hardly a clue what is going through her mind, and since she is 86, the likelihood of her having a major shift is small. I can’t change her and I can’t blame her for being furious at what is happening to her, but I can change me. I need to be the kind of daughter that makes me feel like a good person, with no expectation of any reward or even any benefit.”
In these difficult circumstances, our work is to maintain a bond, loving if possible, to be present for however our parent needs to be and to hold the relationship without focusing on how we can improve our parent. Whatever craziness a parent finds herself enmeshed in, our work is to stand it if we cannot change it. When a parent dies, it is helpful to feel that we behaved in ways that we recall as loving and caring rather than directive and irritable.