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.


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.

Using the Past to Improve the Present

In the last post, I described how I was able to use Mom’s love for keeping secrets to smooth the process of getting her to bed. That’s just one example of a miraculous phenomenon:

The past, even the less attractive parts of it, can be a powerful tool to gain our loved ones’ cooperation in the present.

Let me start by explaining how I think the keeping-secrets strategy worked. For most of my adult life, whenever Mom and I were together in a family gathering, she wanted me to come with her when she went to the bathroom. Back then she didn’t need my help. She just wanted to talk, to discuss things—usually inconsequential things—outside my father’s hearing. She did the same thing with my sister; we used to smile about it. I think talking “in secret” gave Mom a feeling of power. She knew things Dad didn’t know.

Unusual? Maybe. But it was a routine Mom and I practiced for years, without even thinking about it. And while I don’t know the science of where and why and how that routine was stored in Mom’s brain, I know from experience that if I told Dad in a firm voice he couldn’t come with us and then spoke in a whisper to Mom and took her arm, I could lead her to the bathroom or the bedroom or almost anywhere in the house we needed to go. Did it work every time? No. But it worked often enough that I began using other old habits and idiosyncrasies of Mom’s to smooth the rough path of Alzheimer’s.

Her green sweater, for instance. She wore it for probably twenty years, partly, I fear, because Dad begged her to get a new one. The fuzzy “pills” that covered it were the size of English peas. One shoulder seam had been mended so many times, the left side of the sweater was shorter than the right. Thank goodness for the distraction of mismatched buttons and raveling buttonholes. But—on difficult mornings, I could sometimes entice Mom to get dressed by adding the green sweater to the stack of clean clothes.

Another example: When I was a child, I could always count on Mom to have a tissue when I needed one. She was almost obsessive about having a pack of them close at hand. For a long time, even Alzheimer’s didn’t keep Mom from collecting tissues. She raided boxes at the doctor’s office and napkin dispensers at fast food restaurants. She folded her treasures with care and squirreled them away in the pocket of her slacks, in her otherwise empty purse, or in the already bulging pockets of the green sweater. Though this practice could be embarrassing, especially when Mom snatched a napkin from the table of some unsuspecting diner, it too proved helpful. If Mom grew angry for some reason when we were in public, I could grab a tissue from my purse and hold it out to her, saying, “Mom, do you want this tissue? I found it over there. Maybe we can find more.” The tissue claimed, or at least divided, her attention long enough to cool her anger.

Though Mom couldn’t seem to come up with the old habits on her own, they appeared to strike a comforting chord in her mind when we replayed them for her. Using even the irritating idiosyncrasies of the past, we were better able to handle the more severe problems of the present.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me….You are familiar with all my ways.       (Ps. 139 1,3 NIV)

Where would we be without Your wisdom, Lord? Alzheimer’s is a mystery to us, but not to You. Open our minds to Your inspiration. Thank You for continuing to guide us in the care of those we love.