Several years ago, I wrote this article, which was published in Hope for Women Magazine, about how devastating it is for someone to lose control over their lives. It is as true today as it was then. I learned then that you cannot, and should not try, to parent your parent.
Loss of Power
As I waited for my husband in the barbershop, I overheard a young woman say, “Dad hasn’t been eating well since Mom died. He won’t take his pills or even change his clothes. He needs to take better care of himself. I’m going over there and talk some sense into him.”
Good luck with that, I thought, remembering my mother and the lesson she taught me several years earlier. She was my best friend and role model, so I found it deeply painful to watch chronic illness slowly deprive her of the life she loved.
I could always find Mom at any social gathering by following the laughter. There she would be, relating a simple life experience with such humor, people would be wiping away tears as they hooted. As she grew ill and frail, a weak, confused old lady replaced the brilliant, funny, and talented woman who raised me. “I miss my mother!” I said to my dad.
After one hospitalization, Dad and I agreed she would benefit from a day program, thus giving him a needed break from her care. None of us asked her what she thought about that plan. She let us know within a week. “Your mother doesn’t want to go to the day program. Talk to her.”
He sounded exasperated. I badgered her into attending that day, the next day, and the day after that. Finally I snapped, “If you don’t want to go, fine. But you call them, and tell them why you’re not going.”
“Okay, I will,” she said with renewed strength in her voice. In that moment, she took the first step to seize back control of her life. My mother gradually grew so independent that she lived alone for two years after Dad passed away.
I never forgot that lesson. Losing control over her life when ill made a capable, delightful, elderly woman appear doddering and helpless. In an effort to help, my father and I made a decision for her and did not listen when she tried to tell us it was wrong. Instead, I tried to “talk sense into her.” Rather than listening, I attempted to take control.
So began my learning curve about this thing called caregiving. Still, I had more to learn about listening. My mother called me one afternoon to tell me her latest problem. I must have sighed because she said, “Look, I know you can’t help me with this. No one can. I just want tea and sympathy.”
“Is that all? I can give you that!” I responded, immensely relieved. My mother wanted to share her feelings. She wanted a shoulder to cry on, not solutions.
Doug Manning, a retired minister, counselor, and seminar leader in grief and elder care, writes about this gift of a listening presence in his book The Power of Presence. People cannot accept advice when they are overflowing with unexpressed sorrow or loss. First, they need to tell what is in their hearts to someone who is “safe;” who will not give advice, take control, or judge them.
The caregiving experience taught me that attempting to control others and their situations would cause enormous stress for all. I had tried to force a solution. When that did not work, I tried harder. When that still did not work, I became angry and then felt guilty about my anger. I would then try even harder to assuage my sense of guilt. A vicious cycle indeed!
I finally learned that true power rests in the hands of God alone. The Father blesses us with the role of “servant” when he calls us to be caregivers. Wielding power and servant-hood do not go together. I have found much comfort and strength as a caregiver from these words: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NKJV).
Even when a parent no longer has capacity and guardianship must be sought, we must still respect the person buried within. As one social worker exclaimed, “Don’t parent your parent!”