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Parenting a parent

It’s summer! I love it! I’m on my way to an outdoor party where I’ll see friends I haven’t seen for awhile – some since last year at this time. Summer’s a great time for that, gathering with people, catching up. The subject’s come up, “How’s your family?” “What are the kids up to?” “How are your parents?” I guess that’s the stage of life I’m in, thinking about what’s best for your parents in the same conversations as your kids.

Because of easier travel, less structured schedules, some of our gatherings involve older adults. There are many laughs and memories and teasing about how everyone has “grown up” (do wrinkles mean you’ve grown up?). Sometimes though, it’s the time to realize how much time has really passed, and you’re noticing changes that others aren’t seeing, or aren’t addressing. Though certainly not the time to bring it up in the middle of a fun family gathering, but certainly a time to take note.

Are you noticing any of these things?

Change: Mom has always been interested in talking to the neighbors, reading the newspaper, or volunteering but is withdrawing from those interests. You notice she gets much more anxious when family is going to be around. Too much activity is overwhelming and sometimes confusing. Pay close attention to how often this happens. Talk to those that are around her everyday to see what a normal day’s activity is. Suggest she see her doctor.

Inactivity: Dad is suddenly much less active than usual. Spend some time with him to investigate possible causes. Maybe it’s just occasionally, but maybe this is the pattern he’s in now. Suggest small doses of physical activity every day. Possibly help him to start recording the exercises he’s doing and report back to you. Help him develop a chart. Find fun activities. Suggest he walk down to meet the guys for coffee rather than drive.

Slowing down: Grandpa always used to have a bounce in his step. Now, suddenly, he trudges along. That’s a bad sign and needs to be addressed. An appointment with his doctor may be in order. The issues could be physical and an evaluation from a therapist may be valuable. The issues could be depression and lack of motivation each day. Find out what his daily routine is and see if you can encourage any additional activities. Is he alone too much? Recruit some visitors on a regular basis. A small dose of companionship goes a very long way – especially during mealtime.

Loss of appetite and weight: Grandma enjoyed cooking and always had a healthy appetite, but she seems to have lost interest in food. You’re right to be concerned. The issue could be lack of motivation because she’s eating alone. The issue could be that cooking is physically too taxing for her. Possibly the chore of getting groceries, getting them into the house, and getting them put away is just not worth it. Investigate the need for someone to be around more often during mealtime. The issue could be medical. Certainly a visit to the doctor would be important if this doesn’t improve.

Unsteadiness: Loss of balance comes with aging but Mom’s increasing unsteadiness is a sign that something could be wrong. Definitely investigate with doctor and therapist appointments to find the cause of the loss of balance. Falling is a huge threat to a senior’s health. Many precautions can be easily made to attempt to prevent falls. Check with your health care professionals on safety items for her home.

You are noticing issues and there’s a need for your help, but now what do you do? It’s difficult! To honor the independence of a senior, but to try to help make decisions for their health and safety is no easy task. Certainly by paying attention, recognizing difficulties and attempting to assist is what as kids we want to do. But it doesn’t always feel right. I’ve heard people use the term “parenting a parent” but the term has always bothered me.

I was delighted to read this blog posted by Cat Koehler on entitled “Parenting our Parents.”

Her blog is:

“Several months ago, as I sat through a training class for caregivers, I found myself thinking I knew it all, and then quickly realizing how little I actually did know.

The caregivers shared techniques that had been successful for them in caring for a person with dementia. The instructor offered more suggestions for redirecting behavior, encouraging activity, and safety.

Throughout all of this, I realized that I used all of these techniques on my children. In fact, at nearly every suggestion, I related it to my parenting experience. That’s when I decided that I could do this — piece of cake. If I could be a parent, I could surely be a caregiver for my parents. I’d be using the same knowledge and techniques and doing the same things.

I will spend my time taking them to doctor’s appointments and social events. I will make sure they are properly fed and bathed. I am certain there will also be some difficult conversations about where they will live, driving abilities, and finances.

No sweat. All of that goes with parenting as well. I will just be parenting my parents.

Let me be the first to point out that this isn’t the first time I’ve been wrong.

Then the instructor cautioned us against treating a senior like a child.

I took a hard look at myself as a parent – what my role is in the lives of my children, and what I hope to achieve. I also looked at myself as a daughter – what my parents did for me, what their hopes were for me. In neither scenario did doctor’s appointments, food, baths, driving or money come into play.

As parents, it’s true that much of our time is filled with these activities (and many more); these are not the things that make us a parent. It is merely what we do in the hopes that our children will be good people. That is our ultimate goal – happy and healthy children who will turn into adults who are good, honorable people.

When we care for our parents, our time may be spent doing much of the same, but it isn’t parenting. The end goal is so much different. Our parents have already become good honorable people. Our job as their caregiver isn’t to point them in the right direction, let them learn lessons on their own, or to hand down discipline in the hopes we make a lasting impact.

Regardless of how old we become, or how disabled they may become, they will always and forever be our parents. They will always be the people who put up with our shenanigans and loved us when we were at our most unlikable.

As our parents’ caregiver, our role is to keep them happy, healthy, and safe as we honor them and their wishes. Our effort is a way to thank them for the time they cared for us; to show them that they did indeed help us become good, honorable people.

So no longer do I have any notion that I will one day be parenting my parents. Instead, I will be caring for them. No, scratch that. I will be honoring them.”

Happy summer! Enjoy all the activities with family and friends. Remember, the best things you can do for the seniors in your life is to pay attention, be as knowledgeable as possible to the help that’s out there and truly know that your goal is simply to honor them.

DEB CRANNY is the executive director at Home Instead Senior Care in Brainerd