Parenting Our Parents

An incident I witnessed on a vacation many years ago continues to shine a light on one of the hardest tasks of caregiving.

During our hike through a national park, our family stopped in a picnic area to have lunch. As I made sandwiches for my three young sons, I could hear wails from the picnic table next to ours.

“But Mom, it’s my money.” The little boy’s face was red; his eyes were swollen.

An older girl and another boy, siblings, I’m sure, looked almost as sad. They watched the mom as she said, “John, I know you worked hard for this money. But you aren’t taking good enough care of it. If I hadn’t seen it and picked it up, your allowance would still be back there on the counter in the gift shop. You can spend it, but I’ll carry it with me.”

I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t escape hearing John’s next plea: “But Mom! I’m old enough! I’ll do better. Please?”

monkey parent“Johnny,” his mom answered, and I’m pretty sure I heard tears in her voice, too, “I don’t want you to lose everything you worked for. If you lose it, all of us will be unhappy. I’ll take care of it for you.”

I remember how sorry I felt for Johnny. But I hurt for his mom as well. We want so much to make our children happy, but there are times when we just can’t. Sometimes we have to say no.

Since my children are grown now and have children of their own, I thought I was free from having to make those hard choices. I was mistaken. Like many caregivers, I had to step back into the parenting role again.

Parenting my parents.

Mom was in her sixties when Dad realized she could no longer balance the checkbook. Mom had always paid the bills; Dad took over that job, too. As pots and pans were scorched on the stove because Mom forgot about them, Dad became the cook. When he ran out of clean clothes, he started doing laundry. They went to the grocery store together; Dad did the shopping while Mom wandered up and down the aisles, stopping to look at greeting cards or artificial flowers or bars of soap.

Dad kept these changes to himself for as long as he could, but eventually Mom’s behavior became so bizarre it could no longer be hidden.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Dad?” I asked after one of Mom’s harder days.

“Now Katrinka, I wasn’t hiding anything. I figured your mama just wasn’t interested in her old routines anymore.”

Balderdash. You don’t raise your children or your parents without coming to know them inside and out. And I know that, inside, Dad was 1) afraid of the possibility Mom was ill, and 2) determined that if she was ill, he would keep their home running just as it always had. “Normal.” That’s what he wanted. The two of them living in the pink brick house, taking care of each other, as they had ever since they were married.

help when you need it

While they did stay in their home, “normal” became me spending my days with them in the pink brick house. At first I helped Dad take care of Mom. Later on, when macular degeneration rendered Dad almost blind, I found myself more often in the role of parent, mainly to Mom, but sometimes to both of them.

Remember when you put things like scissors and knives and matches away, out of sight and out of reach of your children? That’s one of the first things I did when I discovered Mom had Alzheimer’s. I hid anything I could imagine might cause her harm if she used it incorrectly.

And that was just the beginning.

Dad and I had to watch closely to make sure Mom didn’t turn on the range or other appliances. Once I found her using one of Dad’s screwdrivers to open a package of paper table napkins, so the tools were moved to a safer place. We no longer left Mom at home alone, even when she insisted she’d “be fine.” She would sit right where she was, she said, while I drove Dad to the bank or the post office. But I had to say no; Mom had to come with us. She didn’t cry like little John did. She became angry, shouting and waving her arms. We’d wait, ask her later if she’d like to go for a ride, and sometimes she said yes. When she said no, Dad and I postponed our errand.

Out of desperation, sometimes I treated Mom as I had treated my sons when they were children. I often bribed her with ice cream or lunch at her favorite café if she’d go to the doctor with us first. Sometimes I made up stories about the magical powers she would gain by taking the medications she didn’t want to take.

Like Johnny’s mother, I knew I had to take charge. Certainly Mom, and often Dad, too, simply weren’t capable of using good judgment when making choices and decisions. Mom, of course, was impaired by Alzheimer’s.

rabbits eye to eyeDad’s judgment was impaired by his love for Mom.

The no’s to Dad were always hardest. No, it wasn’t a good idea to plan a big party at a restaurant for Mom’s birthday. No, taking Mom camping “one last time” in their bright yellow tent might be fun for him, but not for her. No, I didn’t think it was wise to take a long trip in their travel trailer. No. No. No.

Like Johnny, Dad made promises. He promised to ask people to be quiet at the party. He would gladly pat Mom’s back ‘til she fell asleep in the tent. He was sure she’d love a trip in the trailer, but if she asked to come home, he’d bring her home, right away. He promised to tell me when he couldn’t see well enough to drive.

normalFrom Dad’s perspective, I’m sure it didn’t seem too much to ask for simple, normal life. How I wanted to give him just that! And I tried. But from my perspective, it was a struggle to maintain whatever modicum of normal we could hold on to.

Of course, Alzheimer’s was the problem. Both Dad and I tried to say no to Alzheimer’s. Neither of us was successful…except in one regard: somehow we managed to say no to the disease stealing all our joy. Specifically, I kept my eyes and ears and heart alert for the occasions when life felt like old times. I made sure Dad noticed on mornings when the three of us sat at breakfast with toast and tea. I rejoiced openly when we arrived home from the store and Dad and I put away groceries with Mom telling us what to put where. I prayed with gratitude as my husband and I watched Gunsmoke with my parents: Mom asking the name of each character, Dad answering her and then offering everyone something to drink.

foxesNormal.

As I held on to as many of the routines as I could, I also held on to my temper. Usually I was able to resist the frustrated tone that tried to creep into my voice; instead, I held on to the respectful attitude I had learned from my parents. There was no question in my mind that each of them deserved my respect as much at this time of their lives as they ever had.

Easy? No. Whoever said, “The hardest thing about everyday life is that it’s every day” spoke truly. And most caregivers recognize the words as an extreme understatement.

But let’s also be sure to recognize the bigger truth of caregiving:
As we work to preserve what we can of the “normal” life of the past, we’re also safeguarding—in the present—something even more precious: our loved ones’ dignity.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”   (Eph. 6:1-3 NKJV)

Father, help us to be patient with those we care for as You, Father, are patient with us.

Who’s Driving?

Alzheimer’s isn’t a simple here-to-there journey. Instead of a superhighway, it’s a winding road, with switchbacks and opportunities to turn here, or there, or maybe on that path up ahead.take the wheel

Whoever sits in the driver’s seat chooses the route.

When a loved one has dementia, the issue of decision-making moves front and center almost immediately. Sometimes there’s no question as to who should make the choices your loved one can no longer reason through. But in other cases, family members may have very different opinions about how to meet the challenges, large and small, associated with dementia. Those differences of opinion—between a parent and children or among siblings—can add immeasurably to the difficulties of caring for a loved one.

A spouse who isn’t able to find and consider all the options may yet insist on being the only decision-maker. Or one sibling may have to defend her role as the one best equipped to evaluate conditions and make choices for a parent, while brothers and sisters demand an equal say.

Choosing who is in the best position to make choices in caregiving matters may appear easy from the outside looking in. Surely it would be the relative or friend who has the most daily contact with the person being cared for, right? Would that it were so simple. First consider the fact that the decisions to be made are usually painful ones: Should we take away Dad’s car keys? Is Mom safe to go out into the neighborhood alone? Should someone assume control of finances, home maintenance, medications, purchases, donations, etc.,etc.,etc.? In addition, Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects a whole family. So questions of capability, trust, motivation, and judgment may erupt among family members just at the time when they most need level heads and teamwork.

In my own case, I know I shouldn’t have allowed my father to make all the decisions about Mom’s care. He was healthy, his mind was spry and rational, but he was determined that his life with Mom would not change. His choices were based on emotion, not common sense. So why didn’t I challenge him?

From childhood, Mom taught me to leave Dad alone. To avoid her wrath, I complied. To the letter. After all, Mom called all the shots in our house

Until Mom got Alzheimer’s.

I met Alzheimer’s the day Mom went berserk (I don’t know what else to call it—that’s what it looked like, sounded like, and felt like) in my son’s apartment. Her struggle with me and Dad exhausted her. She landed on the couch like a thrown log, stiff and leaning to one side, but eventually she lay down.I put a pillow under her head and said a prayer of thanksgiving when she fell asleep.

Right about then, Dad’s behavior became almost as mystifying to me as Mom’s had been. He sat in my son’s old thrift-store recliner, staring down at his hands. He turned them palm up, then palm down, then put them on his knees. He neither looked at me nor spoke.

Trained as I was to avoid upsetting Dad, I kept quiet also. No questions – Have you seen her act like that before? Does she do it often? Have you talked to a doctor about it? Not even a puzzled look. I did my best to ignore the tension in the room as completely as Dad was ignoring me.

When my son came home from work, Mom woke up, smiled at him, and called him by name. As I rejoiced that she was “back to normal,” Dad gave me a look that said, “This afternoon never happened. Don’t mention it.”

My obedience to that silent command set the stage for the rest of my caregiving days. I was never in charge. Or, more correctly, I never took charge.

Dad said he and Mom could manage fine; I didn’t disagree. Instead, I simply came to their house every day to “help.” Dad saw no need to take Mom to the doctor. When at last I convinced him, he let Mom do all the talking. Dad said nothing about her bizarre behavior; so neither did I. The many times I asked Dad to get professional help, even for just one day a week, he refused. With a trained aide, Dad would have been able to do whatever he wanted for a day. I would have had a day off. Mom would have gotten more exercise, been safer taking a bath. She would have gotten used to having someone else help her, just in case a day came when neither Dad nor I could be there. (Those days day did come.) But I didn’t insist. Not even for the sake of Mom’s well-being. I didn’t take control, even when I knew Dad was making a bad decision.

As crazy as it seems to me now, I let Dad stay in the driver’s seat while I just hung on, praying we wouldn’t crash.

driverBut you don’t have to do that. Instead of just riding along, you can drive.

The one who makes decisions regarding the care of someone with Alzheimer’s holds an awesome responsibility. The position requires not just common sense, but strength and courage. The choices are seldom easy, and they go on for the rest of your loved one’s life.

Information is a decision-maker’s best friend. Consulting your doctor, an Alzheimer’s support group, your local senior citizens center, and your local office of the Alzheimer’s Association will show you more options and help you evaluate each one. With that information, you can be more confident you’re choosing wisely for your loved one.

I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths (Prov. 4:11).  (NIV)

Lord, we’re doing our best to guide our loved ones through the wilderness of Alzheimer’s. Please lead us with Your wisdom to make sound decisions. We thank you for Your tender love, Your mercy, and Your faithfulness to all Your promises.